Walks: Follow the trail of the elusive red squirrel

Our native species has been overrun by its grey American cousin. Mark Rowe offers a step by step guide around one of its remaining habitats
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The Independent Travel

Last call for the red squirrel? Britain's native Squirrel Nutkin has long felt the heat from its sturdier, aggressive American cousin, the grey. Introduced to the UK in 1876, the grey has thrived to the extent that the red population is now put at just 160,000 – and falling – with greys outnumbering it by more than 60 to one. In the past couple of years, some conservationists have even asked if efforts to preserve mainland populations of the red squirrel, while well meaning, are ultimately pointless.

This walk explores one of the 16 remaining bastions of the red squirrel in the north of the UK, Formby Point, and the adjacent Sefton Coast, north of Liverpool. The sand dunes of the Sefton Coast are the fourth largest in the British Isles, and are part of a wider Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Special Area of Conservation. They are a nationally important habitat for the natterjack toad and sand lizards, which live on the edge of the dune system.

Even here, the red squirrel faces an uncertain future: the advance guard of the grey has arrived, and the red's population has been devastated by squirrel pox this year, with numbers feared to have fallen to as few as 40 individuals from a high last year of 200.

Fortunately, you still have an excellent chance of seeing the reds on the squirrel trail that can be incorporated into this longer walk, which begins at the train station nearest to the Sefton Natural Coast, Freshfield. From the station turn right down Blundell Avenue, passing the National Trust kiosk. At an information point on the left you can pick up the Red Squirrel Path which loops around the woodlands for about 800 yards. Returning to the road, head towards the beach and bear right opposite a picnic area, following the waymarked Sefton Coastal Path and signposted for Ainsdale and Fisherman's Path. The trail passes another picnic area and weaves through a mixture of pinewoods – the favoured habitat of red squirrels – and deciduous woodland, with coppiced larch among the more attractive features.

After just over half a mile, the path opens up and you enter the dune system, with its mixture of seaward, mobile dunes and more fixed woodland sands. Follow the Sefton Coastal Path waymarkers (due to coastal erosion, they have been moved inland since the publication of the last OS map), passing a fenced-off area of shallow pools that are home to natterjack toads. A fifth of Britain's natterjacks – distinguished by a yellow stripe on their back – are to be found at Sefton and you may spot one at dusk as they are busy fattening up for hibernation.

As the path crosses the tip of the woodland known as Dale Slack Gutter, it passes over an old golf-course tee, one of the highest points hereabouts. From here, you can see Snowdonia, Anglesey, the wind turbines of the Liverpool Bay, Blackpool Tower and, on a clear day, Coniston Old Man in the Lake District.

Coastal erosion remains a pressing issue here. Dredging began off the coast of Formby more than 100 years ago, and Formby Point continues to feel the impact of the industry, which has recovered marine aggregates – used for making concrete. This activity has led to an incremental loss of more than 400 yards of coastline. In the early 20th century, new "training walls" – barriers to create a deeper channel for larger ships moving along the Mersey – were dredged up. While the natural sand movement north from Formby continued, this was no longer replenished from the south. According to Andrew Brockbank, property manager for the National Trust, which owns 540 acres of Formby, 13 feet of coastline at Formby are reclaimed by the sea each year. "Formby Point was once truly a point – now it's more flattened," he said. "As the land is ever more squeezed we continue to lose more of the area and its diversity. If it continues it will have a significant impact on infrastructure. It depends what value we place on the natural environment."

Follow the path as it drops down and enters the Formby Hills and Ainsdale National Nature Reserve. September should still bring you the glorious pinks of sea centaury, a rare wild flower, which contrasts with the white of the grass of Parnassus.

Follow the path through the woods, and then turn right on to the Fisherman's Path, a sandy track that becomes paved. Follow this path for another half-mile or so to a gate by an information point and continue straight ahead through Formby Golf Club and cross the railway line with care. Here turn half-right, signposted for Rimmer's Avenue. The path goes along the edge of the Freshfield Dune Heath – a very rare habitat in the UK – and the purple ling heather should still be going strong well into September. At a crossroads, turn right along the bridleway, then left to follow the rail line back to Freshfield's railway station.

COMPACT FACTS

Distance: Five miles/ 8.5km

Time: Two to thee hours

OS Map: Explorer 285 Southport and Chorley



Further information

For more details about the area, contact the National Trust (nationaltrust.org.uk).

The nearest station to the reserve is Freshfield, a 30-minute train journey from Liverpool Central station. Mark Rowe travelled with Cross Country Trains (crosscountrytrains.co.uk) and Virgin Trains (virgintrains.com).

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