A Great Way To Help Nature And To Discover Nature We Could All Do This And Maybe We Should

Any trip to the coast is a wonderful chance to see birds and wildlife - but can be much more!

In a recent email to Ruth and Alan about bird books I mentioned that Phil (my other but not better, half) had found a mobile phone on our usual Sunday morning dog walk and litter pick. They asked me if I would write a blog about our litter picking exploits, such as they are, assuring me that people would find it interesting and that it might perhaps, encourage others to get involved too.

Most of our litter picking is done on our local patch, the Sefton coast stretching from Hightown to Southport, our local beach is not far from us and is within the permitted area of travel during the covid era. So during lockdowns we have been picking litter along our local stretch, dogs in tow and, often, binoculars around necks, hoping to spot distant gannets and bobbing seals and very occasionally porpoises and dolphins.

The area where Gail and Phil do battle with a sea of litter but they are winning!

We have either singularly, or together with others as part of a larger organised groups, litter picked all along the Sefton coast for many years. The coast is an everchanging landscape, accretion, erosion and human activity and changing practices make for an interesting history, even though that history’s physical evidence is often swallowed by the sea or the sand.

The Sefton coast is around 20 odd miles of sand, mud (some of it with prehistoric footprints) and salt marsh. There are relics of human activity all along with shipwrecks such as those of the Star of Hope, a three masted barque wrecked during a storm in 1883 and the Ionic Star, wrecked in 1939, its remains used as target practice by the RAF. The coast is also the site of the first Lifeboat station in the world formed around 1770 and rebuilt in 1793. The structure was originally safely behind 100 metre of dunes but now as the coast is eroding, what is left of the lifeboat house (a brick revetment) is regularly covered by the tide, the dunes long gone. There are the crumbling remains of a few WW11 structures, but the most visible reminders are the shattered bricks and pieces of masonry brought from the bombed streets of Liverpool to become a sea defence at Hall Road.

Various parts of the coast are owned and managed by different bodies and organisations such as Sefton council, Natural England, RSPB and National Trust.

All along the coast are prehistoric footprints of our ancestors who lived on what was thought to be vast reed beds and salt marsh. Human footprints can be sometimes seen when the mud is exposed but most of the time this ephemeral evidence of the past is hidden by a veil of sand. Other footprints have been recorded included those of the giant cattle called aurochs, red deer and cranes.

Sadly, now the human race leaves rather more durable evidence of its existence with its plastic waste and this is much more easily seen than any 9000 year old footprint.

All of this collected 18 July 2018 – typical of a day trip dump.

I used to walk our dogs along the beach all the time but due to the increasing popularity of our local beach with day trippers I had to find other more inland routes as the amount of litter left behind after a busy day at the beach was just too annoying. I would pass people who would tell me how ‘lovely it is here’ as they tucked into their picnics and when I returned a few hours later they would be gone but their litter would remain for either the tide or the litter fairy to take away. Whilst the day trippers leave a lot of litter, a lot is also washed up here after spending some time in Liverpool Bay, much of it entering the sea through the Mersey and the other rivers which join it such as the Alt. We treat our waterways as dustbins.

Brand new BBQ left behind for the fairies to take away!

Unable to litter pick and keep the 7 rescue dogs we had at the time in check I decided to join organised beach clean groups and initially joined Friends of Sefton Coast group, run by council rangers. We would meet up to collect rubbish for a couple of hours a few times a month, bagging it up to be collected by a warden in a truck later. We tended to concentrate on two main sites, the part of Formby beach which was at that time run by the council (now passed on to the National Trust) and Southport.

At one time most of Southport beach was a sandy haven for holiday makers and day trippers but as the council stopped allowing cars to park on the beach and stopped spraying weedkiller on part of the beach in the 1990’s a large part of the beach has now returned to it more natural state and sun worshippers have had to budge up along the sand to make way for mud, salt loving plants and wading birds. The sandy beach was also, depending on tides, an airstrip until it was declassified in 2001. Air displays still takes place here though and for three days a year in late summer Southport hosts an airshow attracting crowds of visitors.

Most of the rubbish here is mostly washed in by the tide which comes to rest at a sandy strip at the base of the sea wall. Here twite would feed along the sloping sea wall surface continually flying short distances ahead as I made my way along the beach. In spring and summer the sky was full of the songs of skylarks and meadow pipits.

Further along the coast but still on the stretch of road known as the coast road – a road itself built on rubbish underneath its cloak of tarmac, is Marshside, an RSPB site.

We have done a couple of organised picks here, filling, along with other volunteers, large skips with bulky agricultural feed type bags, tyres and the usual plastic bottles and fast food containers. Bulky things often wash up on high tides and remain trapped until the next high tide moves it along or until the next litter pick. From the 1960’s part of Marshside used to be home to a sand winning plant where large trucks would rumble out to the ‘Horse’ sandbank to gather huge quantities of sand. This ended in 2007 and the site has been dismantled. In autumn and winter large flocks of pink foot geese feed on the marsh, egrets stalk in pools and peregrines perch on distant washed-up trees. It can be a good idea to take your binoculars as you never know what you might see when you are litter picking.

You can bird watch and litter pick at the same time even on holiday as we did with Ruth and Alan after watching a stunning white billed diver in Norway, picking up plastic rubbish on the way back to the minibus. It was the same plastic bag and bottle rubbish you find anywhere only the text revealing that the country of origin is different.

Closer to home though and in pre covid times we are regulars at Hightown Beach Clean, a once a month get together of an everchanging group run by Tommy and Cath Norbury who have worked wonders on this beach. Tommy is a regular sight here with his yellow bucket of broken glass, there has been a lot of glass washed up here. Often on our regular cleans here we compare our finds from that afternoon’s session. Small plastic figures given away years ago in cereal packets and children’s magazines, to wash around in Liverpool Bay before being deposited on the shore and hidden by sand and mud until years and even decades later to be revealed to the sharp eyed. Tiny pink ballerinas, Mr men type figures which used to sit at the top of pencils and the most common kind of figure, plastic soldiers. Or we marvel at the age of some long forgotten brand of liquid soap container or potato based snack packaging looking almost the same as it did in the 1970’s. In its way this is a kind of anthropomorphic archaeology.

The Norbury’s are always well organised with lots of grabbers and bin bags, best of all probably, there is a refuge or a slightly raised part of the beach more or less in the middle of this particular stretch where you can leave your full rubbish bags for the warden to collect. Sometimes we have been joined by a group of runners who help us pick rubbish for an hour or so before running back to their start point further along the beach. The combination of running and litter picking is called Plogging and started in 2016 in Sweden. Wikipedia describes it as the perfect activity, exercising the body and cleaning the environment.

Once a year when our regular beach clean is part of a nationwide event we take along our scopes to show other volunteers the wildlife feeding along the muddy estuary – this is where the River Alt runs into the Mersey and attracts shelducks and flocks of waders such as oystercatchers and knots amongst other birds.

Tommy has also managed to organise litter picks on the next beach along the coast so to speak – this beach is part of the MOD Altcar Rifle Range. So twice a year but not last year of course, we were able to get onto a beach which is normally out of bounds. It was here we found our largest bit of rubbish – an aircraft tyre – which had been nearly completely buried by the sand. Large things wash up here so we tend to take a spade to dig up things like builders sacks etc. Oddly it is fun and burns a few calories so you can justify an extra biscuit back at home. Litter picking can be a good way of getting outside, meeting different people and doing something to make a difference and people sometimes thank you, which is nice.

So that’s the largest thing we have unearthed, now to the smallest, nurdles, those lentil sized plastic pellets which make nearly all of our plastic products.

Lancashire Wildlife Trust had a Marine Engagement officer (Sally Tapp) and she and I used to go on Nurdle Hunts as part of a campaign to highlight the problem of plastic in our seas. A visitor to the beach on a nurdle picking day would see people crawling slowly along the beach, bums in the air picking up tiny, cloudy white, round pellets and collecting them in jam jars ready to be counted and added to a database. One day I had a mad idea and recounted it in a ‘why don’t we do this..’ fashion to Sally. Amazingly she thought it would be a good project and the summer of 2018 was spent in local libraries making fish out of plastic bottles and other waste with children and adults. After a few weeks of creating various marine creatures using waste materials (Litter Critters) we had enough to make an installation and a short film. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eJYtowCgvGk

Marine Litter Critters display at Crosby Library 2018

This seems like a long time ago now. The creatures now live in our garden shed and Sally has moved on to other things but the film is still worth a watch.

The coast itself is always in flux and so too are the groups along it, forming, disbanding etc but there are always people cleaning in some form or other. Sometimes as individuals picking up a small bag full as they walk along, to organised groups with names such as one near us, I think they call themselves Beach Angels, cleaning part of the beach which used to be cleaned by Friends of Sefton Council. Larger groups can take part in surveys to record the type of litter and the information gathered used to pressurise producers to use more environmentally friendly materials and to pressure governments to pass legislation to ban certain products such as plastic straws and cotton buds.

Typical cotton bud stems collected from a beach near you…

It does seem that manufacturers often have to be shamed into changing their practices.

People sadly treat the toilet as an extension of the bin and throw plastic into it which then, because, shockingly, we still discharge sewage waste into our seas and rivers, washes up on our beaches and estuaries. All those pink and blue straw-like things we find started their journey to the beach via someone’s bathroom and before that they were nurdles, the basic building block of plastic carried in vast numbers on our seas and sometimes lost or spilt at sea during transit.

Interestingly last week I watched a webinar about another site I volunteer at (hedge planting, Himalayan Balsam pulling type of activities rather than litter picking generally speaking) many of the questions after the main talk on the recent and not so recent history of the site revolved around the problem of plastic litter in the river Alt which runs through the site. Much of the plastic has been deposited in the reed beds and grasslands after part of the bund which normally contains the river was broken down by the volume of water during storm Christophe. People are rightly concerned, who after all wants to see litter on what is now a nature reserve. The answer to the problem is yes you guessed it - more litter picking – but we need collectively to stop it getting into the river in the first place.

Sanderling flock July

A trip to the beach will always be rewarding and you might be lucky enough to see Sanderling.

In case you are wondering, the mobile phone was reunited with its owner. It was safely secured in a clear waterproof bag (plastic, so hard to live without) and, Phil after much prodding through the plastic, managed to reach a landline and the owner came to collect it a few hours later. She had been swimming and thought she would never see it again.

This phone is the second we’ve found on the beach – the first I found on the dunes when phones were just used for communicating although pretty useless on the beach as there was no signal there then. Now many years later, phones are cameras, photo albums, fitness trackers, memory banks, a work, banking and shopping essential and you can now get a signal on the beach. Both phones were reunited with their respective owners so maybe litter fairies do exist after all.

An injured Guillemot found whilst litter picking – injured wing an open fracture, with embedded fishing hook - sadly put to sleep more negative human impact on wildlife.

I would much rather find things like this Sea Urchin when out beachcombing.

Or this wonderful collection of skulls and feathers.

Next time you head out to the beach, or anywhere else for that matter, why not do a little bit of good and pick up some litter? If we all did this just think how much better our world would be. Many thanks to Gail and Phil for all the wonderful work they do and for sharing it with us.

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