Dr Phil Smith’s Wildlife Notes
February 2018

There was measurable rain on 10 days in the first three weeks of the month – about average – after which the “Beast from the East” set in, with exceptionally cold dry easterly winds from Siberia. This unusual weather pattern was due to warm air and high pressure over Canada and Greenland, leading to a blockage of the North Atlantic Jet-stream which should bring us rain-bearing fronts in February. Researchers have linked this to a warming trend in the Arctic, itself a consequence of rapid climate change.

There was just enough rain early in the month to continue the much-needed rise in the dune water-table.  The Devil’s Hole and slacks elsewhere had plenty of surface water, though nothing like the Lake District vistas of 2013 and 2016. Two of the older Natterjack scrapes at Hightown are being invaded by the dreaded Sea Buckthorn. I made a note to tell the Gems in the Dunes staff so they can mobilise their volunteers to clear it. They have done an excellent job in the large slacks of Ainsdale Local Nature Reserve were I noticed several large clumps of cut material ready for burning. My own team of Buckthorn Bashers met twice during the month to complete the cutting of buckthorn regrowth in the Birkdale frontal dunes north of Sands Lake. Sefton Coast & Countryside kindly provided a vehicle to transport us along the beach and back again. Since 2012, we have cleared about 15ha of dunes slacks and ridges that were being swamped by this invasive spiny shrub. This winter the volunteers have clocked up over 220 hours. John Dempsey tells me that more than 60,000 people have read about and reacted to Buckthorn Bashes on social media, helping to draw in more volunteers and raising the issue of scrub control on the dunes with a wider audience.

Trying to maintain a balance between scrub and open dune habitats is a massive undertaking all along the coast. I joined Natural England staff at Cabin Hill National Nature Reserve to mark some rare hybrid willows for retention before contractors removed Grey Willow bushes that have colonised a dune-slack since the 1990s. Counting annual rings revealed that the huge bushes averaged only 20 years old, showing how quickly the landscape can change. A similar exercise in 2005 cleared an even larger slack, with a spectacular recovery of the wetland vegetation, including several rare plants. I also took the opportunity to visit a mechanically reprofiled scrape in the Cabin Hill frontal dunes. It is hoped that this will attract the few survivors of the enormous Natterjack Toad population that lived here before coarse grasses and scrub changed the sandy habitat needed by these open ground specialists.

Natterjack Toads also featured in a Gems in the Dunes training course that I attended on 20th, though I’m not sure I need much training after 46 years monitoring Natterjacks. However, the main point was that over 30 people attended, with the prospect of recruiting extra volunteers to record breeding sites and help with conservation work. 

My monthly visit to Cabin Hill to count wetland birds recorded two Grey Herons, two Jack Snipe but only 13 Common Snipe, where I might have expected 50 or more of this declining species a few years ago. One of the earliest moths to emerge, a Dotted Border , was floating on the water but still alive and presumably happy to be rescued. Other signs of spring were evident in the usual spectacular display of Snowdrops in Cabin Hill Wood, while a solitary Skylark was in joyous song nearby. A few days earlier, a Great Spotted Woodpecker was drumming loudly behind St. Luke’s Church, Formby.

Several trips to record mosses and liverworts in the dunes and woodlands culminated in a ground-breaking visit with Joshua Styles to the Lifeboat Road area on 24th. We found 44 species, several of which are rare on this coast. There were extensive colonies of the spectacular Big Shaggy-moss Rhytidiadelphus triquetrus and its smaller relative, Little Shaggy-moss R. loreus. We also found growths of Mouse-tail Moss Isothecium myosuroides, Common Striated Feather-moss Eurhynchium striatum and the bizarre red-and-green Rustwort Nowellia curvifolia.  All five have only one previous Sefton Coast record in the Bryophyte Atlas for South Lancashire. Nearby, Larkhill produced some vivid Scarlet Elf Cap fungi Sarcoscypha coccinea on dead wood. A new “tick” for me, this seems to be uncommon in the district.