Formby continues to be a place worth visiting thanks to the red squirrel

The red squirrel is refusing to roll over and die, ensuring Formby continues to be a place you should visit. Martin Pilkington reports

Formby is a rather reticent sort of place, not keen to shout about itself – unlike the Natterjack toads still populating its dunes, their mating call earning them the local nickname of the Birkdale Nightingale.

Another thing this town is famous for, of course, is the red squirrel population in the National Trust-owned pine woodland fringing the coast at Formby Point. Andrew Brockbank, countryside manager with the trust explains that red squirrel survival has been largely down to the habitat.

This woodland, planted about 100 years ago as shelter for crops and to stabilise the landscape, is perfect for reds but not so great for the dreaded greys.

‘The reds are able to exploit the pine-cones whereas the greys are more of a general feeder, and not as nimble – they’re heavier so not as adapted to get to the extremes of branches to feed on cones.’

In 2007 disaster struck the reds when the squirrel pox virus hit the area, for a time reducing numbers by an estimated 90 per cent. ‘The good news is that throughout 2009, 2010 and 2011 good breeding success has led to recovery, and we are now back to about 80 per cent of the original numbers,’ says Andrew.

The Lancashire Wildlife Trust is running a project to control grey incursions in the area, another lifeline for the reds, and local landowners cooperate in the campaign, avoiding planting big-seeded trees like oaks, which favour the American interlopers.

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You can no longer feed the reds, but a visit to the National Trust property should still mean sighting them. ‘The best time is definitely the morning, when they are most active,’ says Andrew. ‘They have a late burst in the late afternoon as well. The experience is now though more going in search of a wild animal rather than just seeing one on the other side of the fence.’

Spotting a Natterjack toad is less likely and, sadly, the creature is vulnerable to climate change, recent arid springs drying out the shallow ponds it needs to breed, but the Trust is working for them too. ‘Our wardens have worked to provide lined pools here, and that has been quite a successful strategy. With a bit of funding from the Million Ponds project one of our wardens, Kate, added three more last year,’ says Andrew.

Further south along the coast a short walk through the dunes leads to vast and very inviting sands, another magnet for young families when the sun shines. Here too is something for the town to shout about, though sadly only the foundations of a unique building remain, and a board explaining them.

Ralph Jones, a countryside ranger tells me: ‘You have to use your imagination, but it was the first lifeboat station in the country, and probably the world.’

Founded in 1776, its last launch took place in 1916, the sandstone remains a monument to generations of brave crews.

If the sun doesn’t shine the town centre now has a new place of civilised refuge for fraught mums with toddlers in tow: tea-room and bakery Cup and Cake was less than a week old when we called in.

Co-owner Janice Linforth tells me: ‘It’s aimed at young mums, as there was nowhere really for kids to be kept occupied while you have a nice peaceful coffee or an afternoon tea, not in Formby and not in plenty of other places.

‘We’ve already had a customer from as far as Manchester, and today someone came from Warrington.’

As some of their clientele was more in the grandparent age-group it appears you don’t need the excuse of children to call in for fresh-baked cakes and good tea.

If the child-friendly tea-room hasn’t worked, bribery in the form of a visit to near neighbour Sweet Memories, a family-owned sweet-shop, could do the trick. Not that it just appeals to the young: ‘There’s been a bit of a renaissance in the old-fashioned sweets, and a lot of the makers have started to reproduce the sweets they stopped making many years ago that older people will know,’ says manager Alan Wix.

‘With the older clientele it is things like the Lions wine-gums that sell and the Taveners sweets - mint humbugs and Everton mints, and mint creams. The children go for chocolate bonbons and pick-and-mix.’

For a less guilt-ridden treat Formby has another offering, and again one for which it should be much better known - delicious asparagus.The pine woodlands loved by the red squirrels were planted by Edwardian landowners to shield such crops.

We track some down at greengrocers Cassidy’s in the centre: ‘Formby asparagus was a really well known product - it was on the Titanic I believe!’ says proprietor Alan Cassidy.

‘It’s still grown on one or two of the local farms, because the soil is right for it. In past times more farms grew it, and they supplied all the top London hotels and restaurants.’

Two bunches bought from Cassidy’s and cooked that night demonstrate what those places are presumably now missing. But then Formby does seem happy to keep itself to itself.

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