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A SUSTAINABLE VISION FOR HOYLAKE BEACH

In 2011, Hoylake Village Life CIC (HVL) set out to monitor the efficacy of the council’s beach management strategy in the light of a range of conversations with local people and concerns about long term sustainability.

In 2019, a tipping point in natural processes, combined with public and political pressure to act, led to the spraying of 30,000 square metres of the beach with Glyphosate, killing every growing thing… except what almost everyone had been talking about for years: Spartina.

 Economic and environmental sustainability should not be exclusive. On the contrary, they should be considered interdependent.

The coast is always changing, so we need to adapt.

 

THE SPARTINA MYTH

Many people readily acknowledge that all attempts to eradicate the non-native Spartina anglica – considered anecdotally to be the dominant species of grass at Hoylake, and most readily identified by its spiky, flat profile and upright leaves – has never succeeded.

Spartina anglica: spiky, dark green leaves
Spartina anglica: spiky, dark green leaves

In the apparent absence of any viable alternative control methods, until 2019, the  view of Natural England, the council, and many members of the public has held that continued chemical spraying and raking of Spartina from the beach was the only option in order to prevent it spreading and to preserve the “golden sands” of Hoylake; a forcefully presented promise of politicians for decades amid fears of Hoylake “going like Parkgate, with mosquitoes and rats”.

But there’s a few problems with this approach…

FIRSTLY, “THE GRASS”… ISN’T SPARTINA!

Contrary to widely held public opinion, Common Cord Grass Spartina anglica is not the dominant species at Hoylake, although it is present to a limited extent close to Red Rocks and beyond the new lifeboat station. Common Saltmarsh Grass Puccinellia maritima – an entirely different native dune pioneer species – is by far the most common.

Indeed, since 2011, the extent of Spartina anglica on the upper beach between Red Rocks and the new lifeboat station has reduced significantly, while Puccinellia maritima has increased dramatically.

As a dune pioneer species, Puccinellia maritima initially grows in a dense clump that quickly develops to resemble a floppy wig of long green hair, then develops long straggly red stems and thin, round profile lighter green leaves that spread out onto the sand. These are very good at accreting wind-blown sand into ‘hummocks’, which go on to form embryo dunes.

A blanket spraying of Glyphosate in August 2019 temporarily killed much of the surface vegetation, leaving thousands of square metres of decaying vegetation on the beach, although some roots survived.

For many months afterwards, the results of this action remained clearly visible. Despite numerous high tides, the remnants of rotting Puccinellia maritima along with algae in the pooled areas did not wash away, leaving an unpleasant, dark green and black, slimy residue among discoloured water, described by many as "a swamp". This was a direct consequence of the blanket glyphosate spraying.

By mid-2020, most of the grass has recovered and is back even more widespread than before.

Finally, much of the vegetation adjacent to the promenade wall, especially by the slipways is different again: not Puccinnellia maritima or Spartina anglica but a mix of grasses (incorrectly described as 'meadow grass'), which are being fed by surface water and drain issues, some of which appears to be polluted.

Again, it is really important to distinguish between meadow grass, and Common Saltmarsh grass Puccinellia maritima, a native dune pioneer species. Note the long strands which have a circular cross section, unlike meadow grass.
Puccinellia maritima: red stems and long, floppy green ‘leaves’.

SECONDLY, IT WON’T “GO LIKE PARKGATE”

Hoylake’s natural ecosystem, until its replacement over the last 150 years by sea walls, roads and houses was an extensive sand dune system which stretched along the coast from Hoylake to New Brighton.

So, contrary to popular opinion, Hoylake would not “go like Parkgate, with mosquitoes and rats”.

To understand why, we need to compare the more sheltered, swampy and brackish (lower salinity water), marsh conditions of the Dee estuary, and the types of vegetation that grow there, with the much more exposed, extensive sand flats, mud flats and narrow strip of saltmarsh of the North Wirral foreshore at Hoylake, which directly faces the open sea.

Hoylake may have lost its original sandhills to development but it still has in abundance the sand and wind from which they were created. The current changes on the beach present an opportunity to restore a precious habitat of environmental and cultural importance. What it could look like in the future are the small dunes that have been forming near the site of the old Pirate Ship…

“the existing approach to managing rising beach levels and the windblown sand problem is not sustainable in the long-term. Continuing with reactive management measures on its own is not a realistic option because the windblown sand problem is going to get worse…”

The beaches at West Kirby and Hoylake: options for managing wind blown sand and habitat change: Wirral Council commissioned report, 2000

AND THE POINT IS?

ISN’T IT ABOUT TIME WE PAID MORE ATTENTION TO UP-TO-DATE EVIDENCE, SCIENCE AND DATA?

AN UNSUSTAINABLE APPROACH…

Back in 2011, HVL became aware of an important document that had been commissioned by Wirral Council in 2000 entitled “The beaches at West Kirby and Hoylake: options for managing wind blown sand and habitat change.

This document was entirely based on data, evidence and science.

Not on politics. Not on public opinion.

Yet it was hidden from public view for over a decade.

The executive summary of that document concluded: “the existing approach to managing rising beach levels and the wind blown sand problem is not sustainable in the long-term. Continuing with the existing reactive management measures on its own is not a realistic option because the wind blown sand problem is going to get worse.

It went on to propose a series of field trials that, inexplicably, have never taken place. Instead, the same ‘unsustainable’ reactive beach management process has continued, unchallenged, for the last 20 years, supported enthusiastically by politicians.

Fortunately, the council have been keeping a record of changing beach levels. And understanding that data is key to how we make sense of what is happening now… read this document in the light of current changes and ask: "why have the recommendations of this report been ignored for 20 years?"

December 2014. Mechanical lowering of sand levels at the promenade wall. Ongoing sand accretion increasingly blocks surface water drainage. © HVL

One truckload every fifteen minutes…

We now know from data sourced from Wirral Council that the beach is accreting at over 30 cms per decade, with a staggering 70-120,000 cubic metres per annum being added to just two square kilometres of foreshore, causing the mean high spring tide line to recede by up to 75 metres per decade.

That’s the equivalent of one truckload every 15 minutes, non stop, throughout the year… ad infinitum.

So next time someone suggests that mechanical removal of sand will solve “the problem”, you know what to say!

The upshot is simple; as the beach gets higher and drier, the beach is changing to saltmarsh followed by rapid dune succession as wind blown sand will start to form embryo dunes around the emerging ‘hummocks’ of Puccinellia maritima.

Removing the vegetation, whether chemically or mechanically, can only ever temporarily delay this process, because high tides will continue to deliver seeds to the foreshore on the strandlines, and the winds that blow sand on to that new growth will continue.

Source: Wirral Council

Meanwhile, the beach will, in the near future, begin to overtop the promenade… bad news because vehicular and residential access to the promenade is of paramount importance. This must be taken into account in any longer-term coastal management decisions; a new dune ridge would help slow down the volume of sand reaching the promenade wall and beyond, with the inevitable impact on residential properties and drains.

THE DRAINAGE DILEMMA

Windblown sand is also, inevitably, creating problems for drains and surface water drainage, resulting in polluted water along the foreshore, which creates an environment for unwanted vegetation to thrive at the slipways and along the promenade wall.

This is a very different issue to any ‘natural’ beach grass development and distinct from poor tidal drainage further out on the beach which is a consequence of the relatively flat beach profile.

This aerial photo of the area to the right of the old toilet block at the end of Trinity Road shows this very clearly. Go take a look for yourself, and also have a look at the Kings Gap slipway (below).

At Kings Gap slipway we can see from above the darker ‘plume’ where sand is wetter and feeding vegetation.

Very quickly, all will become clear.

Look for brighter green, more dense vegetation than anywhere else on the beach, or growing from the promenade wall, and consider where that is getting its nutrients from. Polluted water is certainly a contributing factor.

Look for thick, healthy ‘meadow grass’… similar to grasses you will find in fields.

And look for unblocked surface water drains, which release large volumes of black, anoxic water on to the beach, full of plastic rubbish, oil, rubber and other pollutants.

This and other key evidence were ignored in the 2010 Beach Management Agreement between Natural England and WMBC.

More importantly, it was not taken into account in the Habitat Regulations Assessment (HRA), required by law to inform that agreement.

Rather, the HRA  focused on the speculative and factually incorrect assertion that Spartina anglica “may” take over the beach if untreated. Had the HRA taken rising beach levels into account, this would not even have been a consideration.

Nevertheless, on this basis, Natural England’s Assent to continue spraying and raking was again renewed in 2015 to run until 2020.

All this, despite the requirements of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1982 to “conserve and enhance” the SSSI.

All this, despite the high tide damage of 2014 and raised awareness of increasing flood risk. A risk that an emerging dune system would mitigate.

And here’s the rub… there was an important caveat with that agreement…

STATUTORY FRAMEWORKS: BETWEEN A ROCK AND A HARD PLACE

The Assent for beach management activities from Natural England reminds Wirral Council of its obligations under Section 28G of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (WCA): “Natural England also brings to your attention that, as a Section 28G body of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (as amended), you are required to take reasonable steps, consistent with the proper exercise of your functions to further the conservation and enhancement of the SSSI.” (SSSI = Site of Special Scientific Interest, defined more clearly by the WCA as “flora, fauna or geological or physiographical features by reason of which the site is of special scientific interest”).

It is important to take into account the geomorphological and habitat changes in the beach since the original “citation” that was conducted by English Nature (now Natural England) over 30 years ago in 1986; not least that the beach level has risen by over one metre in that time. The “citation” is a description and list of reasons for designating the site as a SSSI.

The concluding statement of the Beach Management Agreement therefore puts WMBC between a rock and a hard place, since it is simply no longer possible for the council to simultaneously achieve the objectives of the Agreement, which directly result in the ongoing suppression of saltmarsh and dune succession, while satisfying their S28G duties under the Wildlife and Countryside Act to “conserve and enhance” the SSSI; while securing “net gains in biodiversity” – a key objective of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

WHY DO WE BOTHER?

HVL consider the beach and promenade to be a missed opportunity for Hoylake that could be offering so much more to locals and visitors alike, while connecting better with the high street, without adversely impacting its quiet and special character.

Most importantly, we can make it a much greater asset for future generations.

We feel compelled to scrutinise the assumed and generally unchallenged wisdom that has informed the council’s as well as our elected representatives’ approach to beach management to date, and we will make no apologies for that.

We have done a great deal of research over eight years and have taken expert advice every step of the way.

A new post-2020 beach management agreement must surely take current evidence and data into account if it is to have any meaningful and sustainable environmental and economic benefits.

Better for the environment

Better for the economy

Better for future generations

Please read all the information on this website, and get in touch if you have any questions.

But before you do, look at the slider below. Does a dune system look so bad to you?

< DRAG THE SLIDER >

After glyphosate spraying August 2019 Established dune system