Tom Marshall discovers Hilbre Island's wildlife
As an island nation our lives are intricately linked to the ocean, and we can we all enjoy that little bit of solitude with nature, as Cheshire Wildlife Trust's Tom Marshall discovers
Wildlife has embraced the opportunities that Britain’s 6,300 or so islands have to offer, so much so that birds will fly half way around the world to get here. From towering seabird cities, to ducks on a Cheshire village green pond, living on an island is something humans and the natural world both seem to relish. Sitting tantalisingly a couple of miles offshore at West Kirby, a trip to Hilbre Island is one way to come face-to-face with some of our globe-trotting visitors, as well as those creatures that make a home below the surf and among the rock pools.
Nature notesLike many small islands, a trip to Hilbre should not be undertaken without a little planning first - it’s all too easy to get caught out by the tide and you may find yourself with a little more solitude than you bargained for! The potential quicksands also mean that a set route should always be followed, which is why it’s best to join one of Cheshire Wildlife Trust’s annual trips or those of other local interest groups.While you may want to get your head down and head straight for the long rocky mirage ahead of you, taking a moment to look in the sands squelching between your toes may unearth some surprises. You are in fact walking over a giant dinner-plate, where lugworms (responsible for those infinitely numbered little tubes of sand) and other creatures are lurking just beneath the surface. Being buried deep among the sand may seem a perfect place to hide; not so however when you’re on the menu for birds with beaks more versatile than a Swiss army knife. The oystercatcher and redshank with their striking orange beaks will make short work of anything a couple of inches down, while the smaller dunlin and its slightly curved bill must make do with a snack closer to the surface. When it comes to the curlew however, the options are endless with a beak several inches long and the perfect shape for probing deep-down for the tastiest of morsels.These estuarine habitats make the UK crucially important for birds, with the Dee estuary one of many similar sites around our coasts that play host to hundreds of thousands of migratory wading birds - making these nutrient-rich habitats internationally important.Islands, whatever their size, also offer a safe haven at high-tide and Hilbre is no exception with dozens of species of birds roosting for just a few short hours respite, before the feeding frenzy begins again. Keen birdwatchers may spot a seldom-seen purple sandpiper skulking among the rocks at high-tide, while energetic troops of turnstones busily comb the surf-drenched seaweed for small crustaceans.One of the joys of a family visit to Hilbre is the chance to explore your own mini-ocean by rockpooling. It’s a tough life when your home is taken through a salty rinse-and-spin cycle twice a day, everyday, so seashore creatures need to be a hardy bunch. Crustaceans and molluscs are the hard-men of Hilbre Island, with the hermit crab carrying its own specially-selected discarded mollusc shell around on its back, while ubiquitous green shore crabs have their own ready-made armour. Beyond the extremes of the shore lies the rock sea lavender, an extremely rare and delicate plant that makes a home in the ‘splash zone’. Unrelated to our more familiar garden lavenders, the rock sea lavender is only found in handful of places in Wales and the north east of England. Remarkably, the sub-species found on Hilbre island is thought to exist at only five sites in the world.The island’s largest and most obvious visitors however are the grey seals, whose labrador-like long noses tell them apart from the occasionally seen common seal which, despite its name, is in fact a rare visitor. Rather cumbersome on the shore where they ‘haul out’, watching the seals playing among the breakers is the best way to experience these animals which are very much built for life at sea. Their large eyes for hunting out fish and squid also make them hugely inquisitive and its no surprise that they’ll regularly pop their head above the waves to investigate their audience.
SOS - save our seas
The Wildlife Trusts have welcomed the new Marine and Coastal Access Bill which is set to create Marine Protected Areas - the first ever opportunity to safeguard areas of our seas against activities which threaten marine wildlife. Work is already underway in agreeing these vitally important zones in the Irish Sea for the future and you can make a difference by finding out more at the Wildlife Trust's Living Seas pages at www.wildlifetrusts.org
Hilbre Island is managed by Wirral Borough Council, and access is restricted to a limited number of people per day and by permit only from Wirral Country Park, Thurstaston, 0151 648 4371. Safe route maps and tide times are also available - you should not cross direct to Hilbre Island or from Hoylake.