Nationally rare habitat being cleared at West Kirby beach

One of Britain’s rarest habitats is being cleared at West Kirby. Saltmarsh which is transitioning to embryonic sand dune is being cleared off the beach after authorisation was given to Wirral Council from Natural England.

In 2022, Wirral Council was given permission again to rake a small area of beach in the town “to provide a clean, litter free area of beach” but this did not include any removal of vegetation that had grown since permission expired in 2021.

Natural England has said that Wirral Council must ensure its actions don’t breach international law and further says that the site lies within or may affect the Dee Estuary Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The site is also covered by a Ramsar Special Protection Area (SPA) and is a Special Area of Conservation (SAC).

In July 2023, Wirral Council was given permission up until 2026 by environmental regulator Natural England to clear an area of vegetation in West Kirby near to the town’s marine lake. However, this was subject to permission being granted for the use of diggers and tractors on the beach by the Marine Management Organisation.

The local authority said it has now been given all the necessary permission for the work to begin with some praising the move. West Kirby councillor Andrew Gardner pointed out a video they shared had been played more than 8,000 times on Facebook, adding, “This is the first step in returning amenity beaches to West Kirby and Hoylake following the Labour Party’s moment of madness to halt beach management.

“The engagement we have had with this is off the scale and Natural England need to take note as we progress discussions regarding Hoylake Beach.”

The move has been criticised by some, concerned about the impact on protected wildlife habitats in the Dee Estuary. Josh Styles, a botanist, on social media platform X said: “a beautiful place within a globally designated site of importance for biodiversity with potential for European Protected Species” was “now destroyed”.

He previously told the LDRS, “We really are at a serious point of natural catastrophe in Britain. We have got one in six species at risk of extinction,” adding: “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.”

A Wirral Council spokesperson said, “This work is mechanical removal of an area of common cordgrass and common saltmarsh-grass from part of the beach in West Kirby.

“A Habitat Regulation Assessment (HRA) has been carried out. The work has been licensed by Marine Management Organisation (MMO), has assent from Natural England and is permitted to take place for no more than two weeks.

“The section affected is a rectangular-shaped area of the beach stretching north from the Dee Lane access point towards – but slightly short of – the boundary with the most southern point of the Royal Liverpool Golf Club, and stretching west to a point roughly in line with the north-west tip of the West Kirby Sailing Centre car park.

“The rest of the area off the coast of West Kirby is managed as a natural beach; shaped and maintained by tidal activity and other naturally-occurring events.

“Wirral Council already has approval from Natural England (NE) to undertake regular beach raking of this part of the beach at West Kirby using a Barber surf rake to provide a clean, litter free area of beach close to the shoreline. This existing agreement from 2022 allows raking between 1st April and 30th September and is in place until 31st March 2027.”

A Natural England spokesperson said, “Following assessment, Natural England concluded that, with appropriate mitigation, small scale recoverable loss of pioneer saltmarsh vegetation would not result in damage to the SSSI. 0.5 hectares of early development saltmarsh is being removed and over 1800 hectares of saltmarsh remains and flourishes on the site.

“Advice we have provided, for the management of the beach, is being followed and we will continue to support Wirral Council with future guidance and monitoring.”

All images credit: Max Booth

Article by Ed Barnes, with further reporting by Birkenhead News.

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