Bradford Botany Group

Birkdale Visit

22nd June 2013



The forecast was for strong winds and frequent heavy showers and the tropical downpour on the A565 just west of Southport was not a good omen. Nevertheless, by the time our small group had gathered at the bottom left-hand corner of Birkdale, the skies had cleared and our host, Phil Smith, was soon in full flow, extolling the virtues of the site we were about to visit. On a circular walk of just over one mile, we would be exploring the nature reserve established here by Sefton Borough Council in 1980. Since then, around 1200 plant taxa have been recorded in the dune systems of the Sefton coast, more than double the number found on similar sites elsewhere in Europe, and we were destined to see around 15% of them in our small sample area.


I recognised the site as one BBG had visited in July 2006, one of my first trips with the Group, and remembered the ubiquitous suckering hybrid, grey poplar, showing rather more of the white poplar parent than our own trees do. Nearby was the Chinese teaplant. Other members of the ‘shrub layer’ included several willows and their hybrids, alder, black poplar and its hybrids and the potentially invasive sea buckthorn and Japanese rose, in both colour forms. I made a mental note of some cultivated apple trees.


Once into the dune slacks, species came thick and fast and I was grateful for the input of Phil’s colleague Pat Lockwood, who had co-hosted our previous visit to the area in 2011. Despite the strong wind, we began to see evidence of the 3300 invertebrates recorded in the area, with slugs and snails prevailing, although we also saw damselflies and dragonflies occasionally. Phil tested our rusty knowledge of the seaside sedges and rushes, which we see only every couple of years or so. These included brown, long-bracted and greater pond sedges and Baltic, saltmarsh and sea rushes.

Embryo Dune

Rather more spectacular were the various orchids, with good populations of early marsh, southern marsh and pyramidal orchids, although all were obviously late into bloom this year. The basal leaves of Grass of Parnassus had just appeared but the round-leaved wintergreen had already managed a few flowers. We wandered ever closer to the shore and Phil explained the process of dune accretion, noting some of the plants responsible, chiefly grasses. As we returned towards civilisation, we saw Ray’s knotgrass and strawberry clover. Brookweed was also coming into bloom and, despite the species tally of over 180, the impression was that there was a lot more to come over the summer.

Early Marsh Orchid

After lunch, we formed a convoy and headed south a couple of miles to the car park by Sands Lake, Ainsdale, where a heavy but mercifully brief downpour greeted us. The habitat here was similar but the species list showed subtle differences from the Birkdale area. We saw several more grasses, including sand cat’s-tail, early hair-grass and dune fescue. There was a small patch of wood small-reed. The dominant grass on the shoreline was common saltmarsh grass, with no sign of reflexed saltmarsh grass, so frequent at our roadsides in Yorkshire. Phil showed us the characteristic transverse septa of blunt-flowered rush and we spotted the tiny bristle club-rush, along with several more sedges, including common and small-fruited yellow sedges.


Round-leaved Wintergreen

We contrasted several tiny and easily overlooked plants, such as sea mouse-ear, sea pearlwort and thyme-leaved sandwort. Ploughman’s spikenard was coming into bloom, as was intermediate evening primrose, the hybrid between the common and large-flowered ones. Other escapes included garden asparagus. There were a few small pools, which yielded lesser water-plantain and both slender and few-flowered spike-rushes. The afternoon tally had exceeded 150 and only seven hours of the day remained. It was time to thank Phil and Pat for another superb day by the sea and go in search of a motorway back to Yorkshire, having largely escaped the forecast heavy showers.