Unsuccessful attempts to use process-scale models to predict long-term aeolian sediment transport patterns have long been a feature of aeolian research. It has been proposed that one approach to overcome these problems is to identify micro-scale variables that are important at longer timescales. This paper assesses the contribution of two system variables (secondary airflow patterns and fetch distance) to medium-term (months to years) dune development. The micro-scale importance of these variables had been established during previous work at the site (Magilligan Strand, Northern Ireland). Three methods were employed. First, sand drift potentials were calculated using 2 years of regional wind data and a sediment transport model. Second, wind data and large trench traps (2 m length × 1 m width × 1·5 m depth) were used to assess the actual sediment transport patterns over a 2-month period. Third, a remote-sensing technique for the identification of fetch distance, a saltation impact sensor (Safire) and wind data were utilized to gauge, qualitatively, sediment transport patterns over a 1-month period. Secondary airflow effects were found to play a major role in the sediment flux patterns at these timescales, with measured and predicted rates matching closely during the trench trap study. The results suggest that fetch distance is an unimportant variable at this site. Copyright © 2007 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.