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Celebrating Sefton’s coast on World Wetlands Day 2021

Each year on 2 February, World Wetlands Day is celebrated as a way to raise global awareness about the vital role of wetlands for people and the planet.

In Sefton, wetlands are incredibly important, and many people may not realise that the entire coastline acts as a wetland.

Green Sefton’s Engagement Officer, John Dempsey, explains in his own words just why Sefton should be celebrated on World Wetlands Day.

Celebrate Sefton’s wetlands

“On baking hot summer days, when the temperature soars on an arid dune system, visitors to the Sefton coast can struggle to imagine this landscape is an internationally important wetland. This is understandable – parched sands and shimmering horizons where only tough specialised heat-loving species thrive couldn’t be much further than the image of a wetland.

A dry slack in the summer. Picture by John Dempsey.
A dry slack in the summer. Picture by John Dempsey.

“There are spectacular wetlands on the Ribble estuary to the north where tens of thousands of wild birds winter and breed (info here on the RSPB Marshside reserve), the Alt estuary at Hightown draws huge numbers of birds including Curlew and Pink Footed Geese and the Mersey’s tidal flats are a haven for waders.”

Why sand dunes aren’t always dry?!

“But the dunes? The dunes are hot and dry, aren’t they? Well, yes and no.

“Come to the dune system in winter in a year like 2021 when we have enjoyed plenty of rainfall and you may be in for a surprise. And a visit (once we’re all able to travel further afield than our local area) may help you understand why World Wetlands Day is a cause for celebration on the Sefton coast.

“The 2021 World Wetlands Day campaign highlights the contribution of wetlands to the quantity and quality of freshwater on our planet. Water and wetlands are connected in an inseparable co-existence that is vital to life, our wellbeing and the health of our planet.

“In Sefton we are lucky to have this incredible habitat, when you consider 2.2billion people around the world do not have access to fresh clean water. We all have a responsibility to battle pollution of course – even pouring the wrong thing down your sink will have an impact.”

All about the ‘slacks’

“With normal rainfall levels, from November hollows between the dunes quickly flood as the water table rises to transform the landscape into a mosaic of lakes, pools and puddles known as ‘slacks’. This is a natural process vital to this priceless eco-system.

A flooded slack in winter. Picture by John Dempsey
A flooded slack in winter. Picture by John Dempsey.

“ ‘Slacks’ are low-lying areas between the dunes so flood quickly as water levels increase. This means footpaths disappear and dunes are transformed into islands floating in an inland sea, some slacks are large, some are small, but all are very important.

“At first glance they may appear devoid of life, but beneath the surface they shelter countless thousands of insect larvae – among them dragonflies, midges, water boatmen and pond skaters. Shy birds including Water Rails and Jack Snipe move in to feed here over the winter, and Short Eared Owls can hunt overhead.”

Rare amphibians found on the dunes

“As spring approaches water from these flooded areas evaporates leaving pools that are the perfect depth for our threatened Natterjack Toads to spawn in. This special creature emerges from hibernation at the end of March when males ‘sing’ to attract a mate at the edge of flooded slacks once the sun goes down. If you’ve never heard the Birkdale Nightingale aka Bootle Organ (local names for the Natterjack) chorus then you are missing a treat – there are few sounds like it on a warm spring evening.

A Natterjack Toad. Picture by Phil Smith.
A Natterjack Toad. Picture by Phil Smith.

“These rare amphibians are joined by Common Toad, Common Frog, Smooth Newt and Great Crested Newt, all taking advantage of this unique transient habitat. In a good year the slacks retain enough water for the amphibian tadpoles to metamorphosise before the pools dry out completely, but even then, these areas hold incredible value.”

Orchids and diverse plants

“The damp sandy soils, warmed by the summer sun, provide the perfect growing conditions for a host of rare dune land plants from Grass of Parnassus to a staggering range of orchids. Over 1,200 plant species have been recorded on the Sefton coast and in turn many are crucial food sources for a variety of pollinators including butterflies, moths and bees.”

A Marsh Helleborine orchid. Picture by John Dempsey.
A Marsh Helleborine orchid. Picture by John Dempsey.

Ramsar status

“The value of this coastline as a wetland was recognised when it was awarded Ramsar status almost 50 years ago. Ramsar sites are wetlands of international importance that have been designated under the criteria of the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands for containing representative, rare or unique wetland types or for their importance in conserving biological diversity. The Convention on Wetlands of International Importance was adopted in Ramsar, Iran in February 1971 (hence the name) and came into force in December 1975. It provides the only international mechanism for protecting these sites of global importance and is thus of key conservation significance.”

Protect, respect, enjoy

“So next time you come for a walk (once government guidelines allow!) on the coast, remember to bring your wellies, and please keep dogs out of these flooded areas that are so important for wildlife – disturbing the slacks can have profoundly damaging effects on some of the country’s rarest flora and fauna.”

John Dempsey – Engagement Officer, Green Sefton

Green Sefton’s work

Green Sefton manages the coast, dune system and nature reserves from Waterloo to the Alt estuary and from Ainsdale to Marshside, maintaining and improving habitats using a number of techniques including scrub control and conservation grazing.

Green Sefton is also responsible for educating Sefton’s communities about the environmental importance of the coast, removing litter, managing coastal parking and enforcing byelaws to keep this internationally significant landscape, and the species that rely on it, safe and protected.

Additionally, the team has oversight for parks and greenspaces, flooding and coastal erosion, risk management and grounds maintenance.