The Warren has a wide variety of coastal habitats: mobile and fixed dunes, grassland, scrub, ponds, reed bed, 'dune slacks', salt marsh and mudflat's. These habitats provide homes for a vast wealth of plants and animals.
Almost 600 different types of flowering plants have so far been recorded at Dawlish Warren. The high number of different species in such a relatively small area is due in part to the richness of habitat types found within the Reserve. Mobile dune, semi-fixed dune, fixed dune, salt marsh, scrub and freshwater wetland all have special plants which are adapted to the different prevailing conditions. Many of the Warren's special 'fixed dune' plants are very small - a way of coping with joint pressures of poor soil, dry summers, rabbit grazing and heavy trampling by human feet. It is probably most famous for the Warren Crocus (Romulea columnae). This small plant, with its lilac-blue flowers, grows on dry stable dunes amongst short grass and is found nowhere else in mainland Britain. It grows very close to the ground and its tiny flowers appear briefly at the end of March to early April. Another of Britain's rarest, and smallest, plants grows at Dawlish Warren - petalwort looks like a tiny lettuce only 2mm across!
It is thought that 2000 species of invertebrate have been recorded there, including:
- jersey tiger moth,
- dragonflies, such as the rare ruddy darter, and
- solitary sand wasps which excavate tiny burrows and stock them with paralysed insect prey for their young.
A major attraction for many bird watchers is the large number of wading birds, ducks and geese. As the incoming tide covers the mudflat's, which form rich feeding grounds, the birds are steadily pushed up towards the high tide mark. Here they rest waiting for the tide to expose the feeding grounds again. This concentration of birds is a remarkable and exciting sight. From the bird hide overlooking the main roost it is possible to have thousands of birds, of up to 30 species, in view. These large numbers occur during the winter months, the birds having travelled from their northern breeding grounds as far away as Greenland and Siberia to spend the winter here. Many more birds pass through going further south for the winter, using the area to rest and refuel.
At high tide, the Warren offers one of the few safe roosting areas for these birds. Undisturbed roosting is vital for them. During their stay the birds need time to build up their strength for their onward journeys and they must save energy to survive a harsh winter. To help protect these birds it is essential that areas of the beach are kept free of people for three hours either side of high tide whilst the birds rest. Even a few unnecessary flights can mean the difference between life and death.