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Dune heath management

Dune heath management

With their vistas of purple heather, upland moors were highlighted in August by the media celebrating the “Glorious Twelfth”. However, we also have precious lowland heathland on the Sefton Coast in the form of dune heath, one of the rarest of our wildlife habitats.

As all gardeners know, heather needs an acid soil. It takes about 300 years for the lime derived from sea-shells in dune sand to be washed out by rain so that the sand becomes acidic enough for heather to grow. Dune heath forms along the inner edge of the sand-dunes but most of it was built on in the past, leaving fragments at Freshfield, Woodvale, Larkhill and on the Formby, Formby Ladies and Southport & Ainsdale Golf Courses. Their importance for nature is recognised by Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Area of Conservation designation. But, if unmanaged, dune heath is quickly invaded by scrub and the heather is shaded out. One dune heath site affected in this way is the Montagu Road Triangle, extending from the north end of Montagu Road, Freshfield, to the Fisherman’s Path railway crossing. Its SSSI/SAC status is threatened by scrub invasion and, if denotification became necessary, it would greatly reduce legal protection against development.

Management of the Triangle dune heath has largely relied on volunteers doing small amounts of scrub-cutting. Birch scrub, in particular, has become a real problem in the site due to its rapid growth. Recently, some birch scrub was used to build hurdles on Aintree Racecourse. However, this hasn’t been sufficient to control the scrub and there is now an opportunity to restore the heathland through a programme of scrub removal and turf-stripping. The latter is used to take off the nutrient-enriched top soil, making it easier to return to dune heath. A block of pines which supports Red Squirrels and several mature oaks will be left in situ. The aim is to create an attractive landscape with open glades forming a patchwork of heather, gorse, broadleaved woodland and conifers. About 1.5ha (3.7 acres) will be turf-stripped avoiding straight lines and harsh edges. These areas will then be re-seeded with heather cuttings. It is hoped to start scrub removal in the coming winter, any noise or disturbance being kept to a minimum and safety notices displayed. Subject to availability of funding, turf-stripping will take place the following year.

Perhaps one day Formby honey or mead produced from dune heath heather will be as celebrated locally as asparagus. There will be opportunities for local volunteers to get involved with mapping dune heath on the Sefton Coast in 2018.

For more information, please contact Margaret Dickinson

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