Stretching in a golden arc from Liverpool’s hinterland up to the fringes of Southport, the magnificent dune system along the Sefton coast is an internationally protected habitat and one of the most important breeding grounds in the UK for our rarest amphibian, the natterjack toad.
While the common toad may prefer hedgerows and gardens, the natterjack is at home on lowland heath, salt marshes and sand dunes, three habitats which have all sadly declined over the last 100 years.
The natterjack needs sandy soils, free of scrub, in which to burrow, feed and breed. But during the last century its population went into freefall, as over 80 percent of its breeding sites were lost to development, forestry and agriculture.
Nowadays, both the toad and its habitat are protected, and the population is stable thanks to strong conservation work and habitat management.
The natterjack is smaller than the common toad, with a distinct yellow stripe running down its olive-brown back. But what
the natterjack lacks in size, it more than makes up for with a loud rasping croak that the echoes around the dunes on spring nights, as the males go in search of a mate.
“It is the nosiest amphibian in Europe and it makes a hell of a row,” explains volunteer guide Phil Smith. Its ratcheting call has brought it two local nicknames: the Birkdale nightingale and the Bootle organ.
Having spent the winter hibernating in its deep burrow, often with other natterjacks and even common toads for company, it reappears as the weather warms up in March and April.
Over the last four years, the water table along the Sefton Coast has been so low that vital breeding pools have failed to materialise. However, natterjacks only need to successfully breed once every four or five years to sustain their population and with all the recent rain, Phil is predicting a bumper year.
The natterjack is largely nocturnal and prefers cloudy, damp, drizzly conditions. Your best chance of seeing and hearing it as it makes its way down the dunes to the breeding pools, is to join one of the guided night walks taking place over the last two weekends of April. A string of nature reserves run by different organisations follow the coast.
Spring is a great time to enjoy the huge flocks of waders along this stretch of coast, which include oystercatchers, knots
and rare sanderlings.
There are also the first signs of colour on the dunes, as wildflowers such as delicate early forget-me-knots bloom, along with several species of orchid and beautiful grasses such as sand cat’s-tail and dune fescue. A truly wild day out.
HOW TO GET THERE
You can reach all the coastal reserves from the A565 coast road, as well as stations on the Mersey Rail line between Liverpool and Southport.
FIND OUT MORE
Sefton Coast and
0151 934 2967
Natural England NNR at Ainsdale on
Call for night walk details.
Ainsdale, PR8 2QD
Seafront pub with great atmosphere and traditional food – a great starting or finishing point to your day’s explorations of the dunes.
98 Lord Street,
Southport PR8 1JR
Modern, contemporary hotel in the heart of Southport.
Another nature reserve, this time run by the National Trust, where the red squirrel is the undoubted star.