Hoylake's 'civil war' sparked by debate over Wirral beach's green future

Residents of a coastal town have been expressing their anger after their beach was left to rewild.

Grasses and flowers have now spread across the sand at Hoylake three years after Wirral Council stopped raking it.

Some people support the idea, however, which is leading to a heated debate in the small community.

One resident, who is in favour of dunes developing, complained: "People point and go 'There's that woman!' It's horrible."

While a pro-beach local said: "I've been subjected to quite intense trolling by certain individuals who don't even live in Hoylake. It's totally unacceptable."

Dunes appear to be starting to form on Hoylake beach.

Campaigners say the vegetation means the area can no longer be used as an amenity for families and visitors.

But the council says the beach is protected because it is home to a range of rare or nationally-important species and habitats.

Supporters claim there is still plenty of sand for everyone.

Dave Gilbertson launched a petition in 2019, demanding that the beach should be raked.

It has attracted nearly 14,000 signatories.

He said: "Prior to the grass being on the beach we had football teams down there practicing. You would see more tourists. So it affected businesses that would benefit from tourists passing by. And [I object to] just the general mess of it.

"Now we've got a load of grass and weeds."

The naturalist and broadcaster Chris Packham said more than 150 species of plant, including 19 at risk of extinction, had been found on the beach.

His view is supported by Josh Styles, a Liverpool-based botanist who loves walking through the growth to discover what has taken root.

He said: "I see something that is incredibly important not only to Hoylake, but on an international platform.

"This habitat right here is an embryo dune system. It's a baby dune system, which in Britain is incredibly rare. There's less than a thousand hectares left in the British Isles.

"But not only that, I think it's something that's valuable not just to wildlife, but to us for the services it offers, for the carbon it captures, for the sand it stops going to blow into town."

New flowers are springing up where people once sunbathed.

Management of the stretch of sand was suspended in 2019.

Many criticised the council for not considering the views of beach users at the time.

Now, a six-week public consultation is underway as part of a future management plan.

Dr Jane Turner, a bird-watcher with a PhD in biophysics, set up a Facebook group wanting to dispel myths.

She says the council is obliged to consult but doesn't believe it will make much difference.

She said: "If 99% of people said we want the beach ripped up, they still probably can't do that legally because of the protection it's got as a special area of conservation.

"There's a huge issue with perception and education that needs to be bottomed out. Hopefully this consultation will start that process."

The first phase of a public consultation is underway.

Drop-in sessions have been held at the local community centre.

Long-time friends Julie O'Hare and Jennifer Wilkinson went to speak to council officials together.

Julie said: "There hasn't been much information or conversation between us and them.

"Today actually was very helpful. They're going to keep us informed more."

Jennifer added: "It was actually speaking to somebody face-to-face, not just on computers.

"You need to speak to people and have proper conversations."

But Lorna Simpson had doubts about the consultation being open to non-residents and said the situation hasn't been handled well.

She added: "There should be more sitting down and explaining things to people more in general terms. The questionnaire is very confusing."

Life-long residents have seen the beach change.

Charlotte Smith is profoundly disabled.

She has limited hearing, sight in one eye and has other conditions.

Charlotte has lived in Hoylake since 1975 and says the beach has declined gradually.

"For me, access on the beach is becoming increasingly difficult because of all the grass and weeds in the place.

"It's hitting mental health. I usually like to go down to the beach as it was back in the day to think, contemplate. I can't do that anymore because it really upsets me seeing the beach as it is."

People are being encouraged to get involved in the debate.

Three years after the row first ignited, many people are now hopeful of a compromise.

One popular suggestion seems to be raking an area of the beach near to the lifeboat station where there is not as much vegetation.

One of the campaign groups, Hoylake Beach Community, has met with all of the interested parties

"We are really grateful for the consultation process. It's given a voice for the community to be heard. We would just like to encourage more people to go.

"We are now hopeful that we're heading in the right direction."

Members of the pro-sand group Friends of Hoylake and West Kirby Beaches declined to be interviewed.

Clumps of flowers now sit proudly in the sand.

The findings of the consultation will help develop a long-term plan for the sustainable future management of Hoylake beach.

The council says independent surveys about potential future beach levels and habitat development will be considered alongside advice from Natural England and the views of the public.

A spokesperson said: "There is a consultation underway on the future management of Hoylake Beach which can easily be accessed online.

"In addition, other paper means of responding are available and the council has recently held in-person drop-in events, and more council officers will be in touch with local residents in the coming weeks.

"There are lots of different opinions on this issue, but this consultation is an important opportunity for people have their say on Hoylake beach management in the future.”

People have until Wednesday 10 August 2022 to take part in the first phase of the consultation.