Chris Packham speaks out on ecology at Hoylake Beach

Naturalist and conservationist, Chris Packham, has spoken out on the subject of Hoylake beach.

Up until 2019, Wirral Council sprayed Hoylake beach with weedkiller and used tractors to rake away any vegetation that had taken root. The beach was sprayed with a glyphosate herbicide that is banned in some countries due to fears that it is carcinogenic.

The council now follows advice from Natural England on how to manage the area, which does not involve weedkiller or raking and allows nature to take its course.

Mr Packham’s view on the situation was made clear in a statement he made on Facebook. He said, “Hoylake’s Beach on Wirral is of international conservation importance. It has over 150 different species of plant found there, 19 of which are at risk of extinction & some even presumed locally extinct.

“It’s quickly transformed from being a desert sprayed with herbicide every year into an oasis since Wirral Council stopped herbicide treatment in 2019 and allowed the beach to develop naturally.

“The result of which is that the grasses and other plants that have grown have created a natural barrier stopping the sand from migrating into the town. Some of the locals aren’t as keen to see this vegetation growing and want to ‘tidy’ it up by removing all this incredibly important habitat. “

He then went on to say that local ecologist, Josh Styles, has started a petition to try and raise the profile of what is happening at Hoylake beach.

Chris Packham is not the first notable person to add his thoughts to the matter. In 2019, environmental writer George Monbiot and Dragon’s Den TV star Deborah Meaden criticised Wirral Council for spraying Hoylake beach.

https://twitter.com/DeborahMeaden/status/1160256230960586753
Ecologist Josh Styles at Hoylake. Credit: www.fotopiaimages.com

birkenhead.news spoke to ecologist Josh Styles, who said, “It’s important to understand that Hoylake beach isn’t any old beach! It is subject to numerous legal designations. It’s protected under the Wildlife Countryside Act, designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and also, it’s doubly protected because it’s also a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under the conservation habitats and species regulations.”

These designations give Hoylake beach the highest possible level of legal protection on the basis of its intrinsic biological importance for the habitats and the species there.

“In terms of coastal processes, it’s completely unique on Wirral. It’s transitioning into a sand dune environment,” Josh tells us. When the beach was being raked, the sand stretched from the sea wall to about 2km into Liverpool Bay. With the sand dunes that are now developing, the sandy beach will still extend out into the bay, but there will be a narrow strip of dunes next to the sea wall with the sandy beach just the other side of the dunes.

Josh makes frequent visits to the beach to record the flora that is establishing there. To the casual uninformed observer (such as our reporter!) the beach just looks like it has a grassy patch made up of a single type of beach grass – but nothing could be further from the truth.

Josh explained, “I’ve been monitoring the beach and its plantlife for over two years. I’ve recorded over 156 plants, including two new ones today. Of those 156 and there are 19 that are really important plants. They’re at real risk of extinction in either a regional or national context, even for a site that’s internationally designated protected like Hoylake beach.

“That number is exceptional, it is really good, especially considering that it is a tiny beach compared to other SSSIs like the Sefton coast, which is one of the most extensive dune systems in the country.”

There is a lot of misinformation circulating regarding the beach and Josh is keen to set the record straight; “One of the myths that I have heard quite often is that the vegetation is taking over the beach. The vegetation is only occupying parts of the beach that are conducive to vegetation growth,” he said self-evidently.

Where the vegetation grows, sand is trapped and that is how sand dunes form. Josh told us that vegetation takes hold in the sand and traps more sand and forms embryonic dunes and this process repeats and the dunes grow. But this doesn’t mean that sand dunes will continue to grow and grow.

“Sand dunes go through cycles of accretion and erosion. Accretion is where sand is cumulatively building up on the beach. Erosion, such as is currently happening at Formby and Hightown, they’re losing about one metre of dune every year,” he explains, showing that dunes aren’t fixed and go through cycles as is the will of nature.

Nature takes time, and we asked Josh what we could expect to see in the near future at Hoylake; “Dune formation and then a lovely big sandy beach that will likely be even bigger than it is today. Sand dunes and big sandy beaches that many people will use every year.”

For more information, see Hoylake Beach – the evidence

A dune ridge at the RLNI with Lyme-grass and Sand Couch - Mark Howard
A dune ridge at the RLNI with Lyme-grass and Sand Couch. Credit: Mark Howard
Frosted Orache (Atriplex laciniata), an uncommon species in northwest England. Credit: Josh Styles
Prickly Saltwort (Salsola kali), a plant red-listed as ‘Vulnerable’ in England. Credit: Josh Styles
Sea Arrowgrass (Triglochin maritima) Credit: Mark Howard
Sea Holly (Eryngium maritimum), an important nectar plant for rare Grayling butterflies found locally. Credit: Josh Styles
Sea Milkwort (Lysimachia maritima) Credit: Josh Styles
Sea Milkwort (Lysimachia maritima) Credit: Mark Howard
Sea Whorl-grass (Catabrosa aquatica subsp minor) growing on Hoylake beach after over 100 years of being presumed extinct. This is one of two sites in England where it exists. Credit: Josh Styles
Yellow Glasswort (Salicornia fragilis), a nationally scarce species which was presumed extinct following the commencement of raking, has recolonised parts of Hoylake Beach. Credit: Josh Styles

Main image (Inset): Garry Knight, Dunes: Mark Howard

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