Our Gems in the Dunes project, part of the national Back from the Brink programme, is helping endangered sand dune eco-systems, enabling some of Britain’s rarest wildlife to return to the Sefton Coast.

Wildlife native to the Sefton dunes include six key species: natterjack toads – unmistakeable on a calm spring evening in the dunes with their distinctive call that can be heard a mile away; sand lizards – possibly one of the hardest creatures to spot, despite their vivid lime green appearance; while the northern dune tiger beetle will leave you for dust as one of the fastest insects on the planet! Miniature plants such as petalwort resemble little gem lettuce; sea bryum and matted bryum leaves carpet the sand, looking like velvet – thus the Velvet Trail in Birkdale, so named by the Victorians. Life however is tough for these species, and getting tougher as their habitat disappears, making the project key to its survival.

Sand dunes used to provide a balanced mix of vegetation, however due to environmental and man-made factors that has all changed. The vast majority of the dune system has been overtaken by invasive vegetation, in particular sea buckthorn and Japanese rose, choking the typical plant species, on which rare reptiles and amphibians depend on to thrive. If allowed to continue it won’t be long before many rare plants and animals disappear from the dunes for good.

The Gems in the Dunes team, based at Ainsdale Discovery Centre in Southport, is working with local landowners to slow down and ultimately reverse the process of over vegetation by rebalancing the landscape. Contractors have removed large areas of scrub from the dunes at Altcar Training Camp as well as the National Nature Reserves at Cabin Hill and Ainsdale. The scrub forms dense impenetrable stands that prevent animals from moving freely around, and can lead to problems of isolation. It also creates shade over the sand – no good when you need the warm sand to bask on, hunt or lay your eggs in as do sand lizards and tiger beetles. With the removal of the scrub, typical low growing ground cover plants such as restharrow, grass of parnasus, sea holly and many orchids, can thrive. A healthy variety of plants attracts an abundance of insects, food for the lizards, toads and beetles.

“Changes in weather patterns has seen vegetation flourish in dune pools too - not a good thing for many dune specialist species. We have worked with contractors and landowners to create new pools, rejuvenate of old ones, and improve connectivity between them. This helps avoid the natterjack toads becoming isolated. Petalwort, sea bryum and matted bryum have a better chance of survival too, on the sandy pool margins without too many other plants to compete with.”
Says project Manager, Fiona Sunners.

Amphibian and Reptile Conservation are one of the seven partners working with Natural England supported by National Lottery Heritage Fund. This funding helping 19 wildlife projects across England that are a part of the Back from the Brink programme,  to improve the fortunes of over 200 of the rarest species across England.