St Piran’s Oratory and Church both lie within the Penhale Sands dune system, which includes the Penhale Army Training Estate to the north. It is the most extensive such habitat in Cornwall.
So important are the dunes for plants, wildlife and geology, that the area has been designated as both a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) – the highest level of protection in Europe.
Penhale Sands contains a wonderful mosaic of ever-changing dune habitats, with the winds constantly reshaping the sands, scouring out wet and dry hollows that form sheltered havens for wildlife. The thin soil supports many rare plants such as Early Gentian, Shore Dock and primitive lower plants – Petalwort and Scrambled Egg Lichen.
The area is particularly rich in insect activity and, unlike most of Europe, the numbers of breeding Skylarks on Penhale Sands has increased following changes in management that have reduced disturbance to their nesting areas.
Grazing by Shetland ponies has helped flowers such as the rare Fragrant Orchid and Marsh Helliborine to become more established on the dunes. The grazing has also encouraged the return of Cornwall’s national bird, the Chough.