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Exploring the wildlife of the Irish Sea and the Sand Dunes project on the Fylde

PUBLISHED: 13:14 08 May 2017 | UPDATED: 13:14 08 May 2017

Compass jellyfish in the Irish Sea by Paul Naylor

Compass jellyfish in the Irish Sea by Paul Naylor

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Few are lucky enough to explore the seabed but you can get an idea what is in the Irish Sea by exploring our beaches and rockpools. Lancashire Wildlife Trust’s Alan Wright investigates

Planting marram grass on the beach by Alan Wright Planting marram grass on the beach by Alan Wright

Nature moments can come thick and fast when you wander along beaches and causeways from the Sefton coast, around the Fylde, onto Morecambe Bay and in to Cumbria.

Whale and dolphin watches take place throughout the summer months and there have been sightings of grey seals, harbour porpoise, pods of bottle-nosed dolphins and turtles from the shoreline.

In rockpools, a world of wildlife can be discovered including a variety of crabs. The common shore crab is, as its name suggests, Britain’s most common crab with pointed spines around the front of its “face” and its colour ranges from green to red and brown.

It lives in this region among rocks and seaweed from the low tide mark to mid shore, feeding on waste vegetation and small animals. Heysham is a great place to find it, as well as Cumbria and other man-made areas around Liverpool and Blackpool.

Amy Pennington with Hawes Side Academy students by Alan Wright Amy Pennington with Hawes Side Academy students by Alan Wright

Another crab you will find in your local rockpools is the tasty sounding edible crab, identified by its broad orange body. You will have seen its shells on the beach and you could find its black-tipped pincers too. This crab can be found by divers up to depths of 100 metres.

Our most common pincered friends are completed by the great spider crab, which has long, spindly legs, hence its name. Unlike many others, its shell is covered in jagged spines.

While you may be lucky enough to see them in rockpools, you are more likely to see their shells on the beach, after the seabirds have finished with them. Also keep an eye out for razor shells and others like cockles and mussels all inhabiting the Irish Sea and all providing great food for the birds.

There appears to be no shortage of food if you sit on the dunes at St Annes and watch flocks of oystercatcher, sand piper and assorted gulls raiding the tide edge.

Edible crabs inhabit waters around the North West by Paul Naylor Edible crabs inhabit waters around the North West by Paul Naylor

If you are keen to get involved in an organised search of your local beaches you can join a Wildlife Trust Shoresearch or guided walk. From January 2016, our Fylde Sand Dunes Project Community Engagement Officer Amy Pennington, working with her colleagues at Fylde Council and local volunteers, held 34 events involving 1,384 people. Alongside Park View 4U in Lytham, she also delivered 21 beach school sessions involving more than 800 students.

Recently I spent a morning with pupils from years four and five at Hawes Side Academy, Blackpool, as they planted marram grass on the sand dunes. This is a natural way of strengthening those dunes which protect nearby homes and wildlife from the wind and sea.

It wasn’t a particularly warm day but the children – and teachers – really got stuck into the work with some gusto. It’s a great way to get them out of the classroom and to appreciate just why the dunes are being protected. It also gave them an opportunity to wander down onto the beach to search for remnants of Irish Sea wildlife.

Amy said: ‘Many rare plant species are much more widespread and numerous now than at the start of the project including the locally rare pyramidal orchid and prickly saltwort, the nationally-scarce seaside centaury and dune fescue and the internationally-rare Isle of Man cabbage.’ The Environment Agency recently provided funding to ensure the Sand Dunes Project will continue until 2022.

Gooey jellyfish are often seen on the beach at Crosby and Formby Gooey jellyfish are often seen on the beach at Crosby and Formby

Back on the beach, in late summer we often see lots of jellyfish stranded on the sand. Sometimes there can be hundreds of these delicate creatures which shows us that the Irish Sea is a great attraction.

It’s a shame that the jellyfish do not reflect their real beauty when they are just a gooey puddle on the floor. Find moon jellyfish on the internet or spend hours (like I do) staring at them in a SeaLife Centre, in Blackpool or the Trafford Centre to see how balletic they are in the water.

Large numbers of jellyfish also mean there are many predators in our local waters. This is why we are getting reports of green turtles over summer.

Phil’s nature moment captures a world hidden from most of us, but investigating our beaches and dunes and then taking your findings back to a computer will show just what an amazing place the Irish Sea and its coasts really are.

Phil Reddell in his day job as South Pennines Grasslands Projects Officer by Alan Wright Phil Reddell in his day job as South Pennines Grasslands Projects Officer by Alan Wright

To support the Wildlife Trust’s campaigns to create Marine Conservation Zones to protect large areas of the Irish Sea go to www.irishsea.org.

The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester and North Merseyside manages around 60 nature reserves covering acres of woodland, wetland, upland and meadow. The Trust has 28,000 members, and over 1,200 volunteers. 
To become a member of the Trust go to the website at www.lancswt.org.uk or call 01772 324129.

NATURE MOMENT

In the second of our monthly features, Phil Reddell, South Pennines Grasslands project officer, tells Alan Wright of his underwater experience

Morecambe Bay is well known to most people for two things; mud and tides, so when I got the opportunity to dive off Roa Island with a local expert in what was promised to be perfect conditions I jumped at the chance.

Low tide was at 10am so I left Lancaster early on a dull, drizzly day to meet my diving buddy at Roa Island pier. Looking across the expanse of dark, muddy water didn’t inspire confidence in seeing much underwater but we donned our gear, shuffled down the seaweed-covered slipway and sploshed clumsily into the water.

The sight that greeted me beneath the surface of the bay rivals anything I have seen in warmer, foreign seas. The seabed was alive with colour, a sponge garden teeming with life; crabs of all sizes, predatory starfish, armoured sea urchins, big purple lobsters and beautiful delicate nudibranchs, which are soft bodied molluscs.

The dive was shallow so we were under for nearly an hour, but we barely moved as there was so much to see in a single square metre of the seafloor. It was a breathtaking experience, made all the more startling by the difference between the dull day above and the riot of colour below.

My passion for wildlife has developed from experiences like this; we all love to see the big emblematic species like ospreys and red squirrels, but it’s the delicate, often unseen and unnoticed, webs of life that surround us in the woods, meadows and seas that give me the most pleasure.

The grasslands project aims to restore, improve and create species-rich grassland in the West Pennine moors. Phil says: ‘Wildflower meadows are vital habitats for birds, butterflies, bees and other wildlife. It is crucial action is taken to restore these endangered habitats and create new species-rich grasslands.’

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