Coastal haven for terns, toads - and wartime munitions


Rhian Waller

IT was a blazing hot July morning, and plenty of other people had taken the opportunity to visit the coast, with dozens of families pitching up on the sands at Talacre.

Lawrence Gotts, a coastal ranger with Flintshire Council, was conducting the nature tours for the first time.

The outings, which take about 20 minutes, allow passengers in a county-owned, off-road vehicle to bounce across the sand – adventure-style – while learning about the conservation work that is done in sandy beauty spot.

Mr Gotts said: “We go out on the beach in the cars or a jeep anyway to check the life ring stations, look at the condition of the dunes and do a general patrol.

“This gives people the opportunity to see what we do. It’s quite popular. We’ve got a load of families booked in today.

“We get down to the shoreline and show them some of the conservation projects we’ve got going on.”

The tours happen several times a year and though beach-lovers may have missed out this time, there will be a similar tour exploring an area of Flintshire woodland in September.

We were ready to roll, so I climbed into the cab and set off toward the sand.

At first glance, most of the indigenous wildlife seemed to consist of sunburned humans in various stages of undress on the beach.

But look a little closer and you’ll see that many of the most interesting creatures, conservation-wise, are also the smallest.

Mr Gotts said: “The beach is managed by several different groups.

“On this side, it’s mostly Flintshire Council workers, contracted through ENI, the oil company which owns the beach.

“On the Denbighshire side, we work with Presthaven Sands near Prestatyn. The company is very helpful.”

We rumbled along over the rutted sand, avoiding picnickers and running dogs. One hound decided to follow the vehicle, barking hysterically as we left his territory.

“There is an established colony of terns on the Prestatyn side,” said Mr Gotts, “but we don’t go too close to them because they are quite sensitive.”

People might have noticed fenced off areas of the dunes. There are several reasons for this. Natterjack toads are found along sections of the dunes, and on the Denbighshire side, sand lizards live near the coast.

The reptiles, which are slightly bigger than their common relatives, are bright green when they are fully grown males, while the females and juveniles are brown.

They are also quite rare and enjoy basking on the exposed sand which reflects the heat of the sun. Both populations are vulnerable and need “islands” of land where they will not be disturbed by human visitors.

“A lot of the area is fenced,” said Mr Gotts.

“It’s not just because of the animals, it’s also because the dunes are a natural form of coastal defence.

“During the big storm, we lost about 10 metres of dunes, so we’ve fenced some areas off to stop them being further eroded by human traffic.

“We’ve also planted Christmas trees to help deal with erosion.”

Very few vehicles are allowed on the beach.

Those that are include council jeeps and occasionally quad bikes driven by members of Flintshire Streetscene, who clear litter from the beach, and Mr Gotts’ colleagues, the rangers, Royal National Lifeboat Institute vehicles, emergency services and ENI staff, for obvious reasons.

The human-led erosion is caused by foot traffic, both human and dog, along “desire lines”.

Mr Gotts explained: “People tend to tread out new paths because they are convenient. You see them everywhere, in fields, in woodlands and here.

“Then they become more popular and more people use them. The problem is when they become used so much that plants can’t settle.

“Established dunes are anchored by plant life. That one,” he pointed at a caved-in dune, “we’re not too worried about. Even though it has that scoop out of it, which was probably storm damage, there’s marram grass growing on it. That’s what the Christmas trees are there for. They’re fast growing and they trap sand. Dunes are basically self-healing given the right conditions. We can already see the sand building up again on the damaged ones.”

Fencing policy is not to be draconian, said Mr Gotts, rather it is a way of minimising damage and ensuring the dunes are still healthy in the future.

“There’s also history to this beach,” he said.

“It was used in the Second World War as target practise for pilots who used to fire at wooden targets. You can still find artefacts on here.

“I’ve had people come up to me at Presthaven with a handful of bullets, grinning and saying ‘I found all these!’

“Fortunately they aren’t live – and there haven’t been any mines either!”

A number of families from Liverpool may remember being evacuated to the Denbighshire side of the border, although the chalets they would have stayed in gave way to the more modern accommodation at Presthaven Sands.

Defensive pillboxes are buried under the dune faces. “People are interested in what’s behind the fences,” said Mr Gotts.

“We can take four people at a time on a ‘safari’. There’s one bit we can go to where we can do a bit of rough riding. The kids love it.”

Mr Gotts’ job isn’t all about driving around on sunny days.

He said: “We are contracted by the gas company to take care of the area. We do have some problems with vandalism, so we do patrols to make sure people aren’t behaving in an untoward way.

“The biggest problem this time of year is people lighting fires while having a beach party. It can get out of hand.”

Autumn and spring are the key times for fence-building. Winter is when most of the conservation work takes place.

Currently, Mr Gotts and his colleagues are concentrating on keeping access to the beach open, maintaining health and safety measures and taking part in weekend patrols.

The rangers oversee about 40 sites, including some in Wrexham, such as Caergwrle Castle and at Waun y Llyn Country Park near Caergwrle.

The next safari is woodland themed and takes place at Wepre Park on September 7.

For information, call the park on 01244 814931 or email

See full story in the Leader

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