Botanist and campaign group voice concerns over Dee Estuary habitat

A decision to allow plants to be cleared in a protected area has been criticised as pandering to an “outlandish stupid culture war on Wirral.”

In July 2023, environmental regulator, Natural England, granted Wirral Council permission until 2026 to clear an area of land area in West Kirby, near the town’s marine lake. It previously had permission to clear this land of rubbish but this expired in 2021.

After the old permission expired, Wirral Council carried out an assessment of the beach before going to Natural England for permission to clear it again but by 2022, a walker said “large areas” of the beach were now covered by vegetation.

Environment committee chair Cllr Liz Grey has praised the approach at West Kirby as exemplary, adding, “It’s got something for everybody. It’s got a large section of natural beach which is very popular throughout the year, and it’s got a section of raked beach.”

However, the move to clear the beach again and to grant new permission to clear vegetation, has come under fire from a local botanist and an environmental campaign group who said they would be “keeping a close eye on the legality of any actions taken here.”

The beach is part of the Dee Estuary site of special scientific interest which means it is protected under environmental law. Despite this, permission has been given for the beach to be raked up until 2026 during the summer.

Vegetation wasn’t cleared in 2023 as Wirral Council is still waiting for permission to use JCBs and tractors on the beach by the Marine Management Organisation but it could be cleared again up to three times by 2026 if it grows back over the winter.

A bee pollinating at West Kirby. Credit: Joshua Styles

Natural England considers this to be “temporary and reversible” with the loss of new saltmarsh unlikely to be significant as the coastline in West Kirby is increasing. It added, “If removal of vegetation is likely to be routine management in future, this may impact future decisions.”

Botanist Joshua Styles accused Natural England of abandoning its obligations to protected sites like the Dee Estuary and protecting new developing habitats for endangered species like the natterjack toad, a rare species only found at a handful of sites in the UK.

He also worried it could set a precedent to remove new habitats in other areas, including on Hoylake Beach.

Mr Styles said, “My big concern is that by acting on what has purely become an outlandish stupid culture war on Wirral, we are removing a globally important habitat. By removing it we are destroying part of the SSSI.”

A photograph of a natterjack toad taken under licence in Ainsdale. The same species is found at Red Rocks in West Kirby. Credit: Joshua Styles

Just up the coastline, work is currently being carried out to improve biodiversity at Red Rocks including creating new pools for the toads, different habitats, and removing invasive species.

The Cheshire Wildlife Trust said their work was unrelated to West Kirby but was needed as “the impact of human development and encroachment mean that these pools are not naturally reforming at a rapid enough rate.”

Mr Styles added, “My own perspective is that if you live in a coastal environment, they are more prone to dynamism and change than anywhere else. If you live in Formby, you need to adapt to erosion but if you live in Ainsdale, you need to adapt to accretion.

“Hoylake and West Kirby, they are host to some of the largest sand flats in England. The sand is increasing every year. I appreciate people’s desire to have something nice and tidy but in my view, you live in a coastal area and we need to adapt to the natural processes at play.

“At the same time, we really are at a serious point of natural catastrophe in Britain. We have got one in six species at risk of extinction. Meanwhile, on Wirral we have species of international importance restricted to Red Rocks.

“We have a decision either to adapt which can be very easily done and we can give natterjacks and other species an opportunity to not go extinct and for natterjacks to continue to reproduce.

“This habitat can sequester carbon and play an important role in producing biodiversity or we can pander for people to have something static, tidy, and that costs a lot of money.”

He argues if the habitat was allowed to develop, species like the natterjack toads would have somewhere to breed and survive, adding, “If you remove that new habitat that species like the natterjack toads rely on, they do not have anywhere to go and they go extinct.”

The decision is also being challenged by environmental campaign group Wild Justice set up by presenter Chris Packham, Mark Avery, and Ruth Tingay. They said, “We have a council wanting to destroy protected habitat and an environmental regulator Natural England appearing to go along with that. Wild Justice is keeping a close eye on the legality of any actions taken here. We stand up for nature and the law.’

Natural England was asked to explain why it considered the vegetation clearance insignificant and temporary in the Dee. A Natural England spokesperson said, “Special Areas of Conservation are among our most important wildlife sites and Natural England works tirelessly to protect them.

“We have provided advice to the relevant local authorities regarding the Dee Estuary Special Area of Conservation on how to best manage this area to ensure a balance between protecting nature and maintaining access for the local community.

“Significant consultation was undertaken by the council to reach a proposed approach, and they must now determine next steps for management of this significant site.”

Raking of litter took place on the beach in 2023 and work, including vegetation clearance, can only take place during the summer months. Protected species Shore Dock was not found on the site and the permission does not allow for new sand dunes and the high tide mark to be raked.

Image: Botanist Joshua Styles on West Kirby beach. Credit: Joshua Styles

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