National Character Area 57

Sefton Coast - Analysis: Landscape Attributes & Opportunities

Analysis supporting Statements of Environmental Opportunity

The following analysis section focuses on the landscape attributes and opportunities for this NCA.

Further analysis on ecosytem services for this NCA is contained in the Analysis: Ecosytem Services section.

Landscape attributes


Sedimentary coastline, with wide gently sloping beaches, estuaries and coastal sand dunes, coastal dune heathland, conifer plantations and settlements backed by farmland; low-lying, rising in places to 20m above sea level.

Justification for selection:

  • Extensive sandy and muddy/sandy beaches along the coast.
  • The coastal sand dune complex extends for more than 17 km with an average width of about 1.5 km.
  • Series of popular coastal resorts including Southport, Formby, Ainsdale and Hightown.
  • High amenity value of coastal strip.

Underlying soft sandstones and mudstones of Triassic age are almost entirely masked by thick deposits of glacial and more recent drift.

Justification for selection:

  • Thick and variable glacial and post-glacial drift deposits mask a low-relief surface of Triassic sandstones and mudstones that are rarely exposed.
  • Drift cover has infilled local irregularities in the bedrock surface, creating a generally flat landscape that mirrors the underlying low bedrock relief.
  • Minor relief variations reflect the dominant landforms associated with individual drift types and their modes of origin rather than the underlying solid geology.

A dynamic coastal landscape affected by the movements of the sea and wind; the estuary and dune systems are subject to ongoing change.

Justification for selection:

  • Physical processes, such as tides, wind, the sorting of particles and long-shore drift maintain a ‘dynamic’ environment on which is based the vegetation communities of the coastal sand dunes and coastal salt marshes and their associated animals and plants.
  • Dunes of recent wind-blown sand are the predominant feature along much of the coast.
  • Processes maintain the diversity of habitats. Some develop in windswept, mobile, conditions, whereas others require deposition of silts.
  • Ongoing coastal change is leading to losses and gains in habitats.
  • The rise and fall of the water table also determines soil character and vegetation.

Inland, the low-lying hinterland is pumped to drain the land for agriculture and to provide flood protection for urban areas such as Southport.

Justification for selection:

  • The River Alt rises in the urban area of Huyton, east of Liverpool, and flows into the Irish Sea at Hightown, south of Formby.
  • The hydrology of the area is complex because much of the catchment is at or below sea level.
  • In the hinterland, large areas of standing water remained for much of the year until large areas were drained and claimed for agriculture in the 18th and 19th centuries.
  • This area is extensively pumped to drain the land for agriculture and to provide flood protection for urban areas.
  • The two main pumping stations of Altmouth and Crossens evacuate water from the Alt and Crossens catchments respectively.

Large conifer plantations (housing a colony of red squirrels) around Formby and Ainsdale, with pockets of wind-sculpted deciduous woodland on estates and farmsteads.

Justification for selection:

  • Woodland pockets and copses are found mostly to the south around the parkland and former parkland at Ince Blundell, Little Crosby, as well as at Churchtown in the north-east.
  • Trees and woodlands also accompany the golf courses and the rifle range in the area.
  • Large coniferous woodlands, established in the Formby and Ainsdale area in the late 19th and early 20th century.
  • The conifer plantations are now home to an important colony of red squirrel. Red squirrel populations also occur in the woodlands of the hinterland and the area is noted as a red squirrel stronghold.
  • The Mersey Forest covers much of the area.
  • The coastal area includes areas of low tree cover, such as the Alt flood plain, the coastal sand dunes and coastal dune heathland, and the Ribble Estuary and coastal and flood plain grazing marshes.

A mixture of agriculture, ranging from open grazed marshes, areas of reclaimed pasture and enclosed fields supporting dairy or beef cattle and some arable farming.

Justification for selection:

  • Inland from the coast is a low-lying hinterland of high-quality agricultural land.
  • The ordered agricultural landscapes contrast with the wilder and more dynamic landscapes associated with the coast.
  • Some of the fields of the coastal hinterland are used by wildfowl and waders for roosting and feeding. Agricultural land also supports some breeding populations of farmland birds, especially lapwing.
  • Asparagus farming was a major land use in the 19th century. A unique aspect is the surviving pattern of small fields created by the former growing of asparagus on sandy soils.

Field boundaries include hedgerows, ditches, post-and-wire fencing and embankments.

Justification for selection:

  • In places the fields are hedged, but often they are defined by ditches, embankments or wire fences.

An extensive coast with internationally, nationally and locally recognised wildlife and geological sites including intertidal mudflats and sand flats, coastal salt marsh, embryonic shifting dunes, mobile dunes, dunes with creeping willow, humid dune slacks, fixed dunes, dune grasslands and dune heathland; the significant dune system is one of the largest in England.

Justification for selection:

  • Much of the coastline and estuaries are internationally designated for their conservation importance as wildlife habitat and make a very significant contribution to the coastal landscape.
  • The Sefton Coast Special Area of Conservation (SAC) is internationally important for the sand dune complexes with all types of dune habitats.
  • The Ribble and Alt Estuaries Ramsar site and Special Protection Area (SPA) are internationally important for a wide range of birds and other wetland species.
  • There are significant populations of many internationally, nationally and regionally important species including natterjack toad, sand lizard, great crested newt; assemblages of vascular and non-vascular plants, including dune helleborine and a liverwort known as petalwort; a rich invertebrate fauna including the sandhill rustic moth.

Evidence of human activity goes back to the Mesolithic period, but settlement was sparse until the 19th century; development is primarily of Victorian date or later, orientated as a line of tourist/commuter towns and villages along the coastal railway and road.

Justification for selection:

  • Evidence of prehistoric settlement, with human and animal footprints and artefacts in the intertidal Holocene deposits on the Formby and Hightown foreshores.
  • The introduction of the railway in the 1840s brought about a string of coastal resorts.
  • Sea bathing became increasingly fashionable in the 18th century, leading to the development of resorts such as Southport and Ainsdale.
  • Built heritage includes the promenade at Southport and Southport Pier.
  • In all of the coastal resorts extensive areas of modern housing now surround the older Victorian core.
    Coastal recreation facilities arise from the seaside tourist attractions, beach access, public rights of way and the coastal footpath; chalet/caravan sites and several golf courses introduce a manicured appearance into this varied coastline.
  • The resort town of Southport and seafront contains traditional seaside tourist attractions such as the pier, funfair and gardens. The Marine Lake is also a feature, and is used for watersports.
  • Caravan sites at Southport, Ainsdale and Formby and Pontins Holiday Village at Ainsdale.
  • Several golf courses were established on dune land in the last century. The ‘links’ character of these courses is renowned.
  • Coastal area is served by a network of footpaths.

Landscape opportunities

  • Allow for the continuing dynamic coastal processes, and protect the range of coastal and estuarine habitats that contribute to landscape character and support the wide range of wildlife
  • Plan for coastal change through enabling intertidal habitats to develop and ensuring that they are established so that they enhance biodiversity and strengthen landscape character.
  • Ensure effective management of coastal landscapes including mobile and fixed coastal sand dunes, coastal salt marsh and coastal dune heathland.
  • Maintain the population of red squirrel by undertaking sensitive woodland management. Looking for opportunities for woodland creation including wet woodland, in appropriate locations within green infrastructure in and around urban areas to deliver multiple benefits, while protecting sensitive habitats.
  • Maintain and enhance the boundary features, for example, by sensitively managing hedgerows.
  • Conserve wetland habitats, including reedbeds, ditches and ponds, as part of the overall mosaic of the Sefton Coast habitats. Ditch management should consider the presence of water vole. Create wetland features (ditches, ponds and reedbeds) adjacent to the main coastal sites on farmland and on golf courses
  • Protect ponds, dune slacks and other water bodies, particularly in respect of amphibians such as natterjack toad and great crested newt.
  • Provide habitat that will benefit passage, overwintering and breeding birds, especially coastal and estuarine habitats and coastal farmland.
  • Seek opportunities to improve access, especially through the future development of the England Coastal Path National Trail, so that people can enjoy the natural coast, with its abundant wildlife. Support the England Coast Path to ensure that no sensitive features found on and along the coast are impacted.
  • Encourage developers to incorporate green infrastructure, and design residential and infrastructure development and their settings that strengthen character of the area and are sensitive to the environment.
  • Maintain the wide open and distant views of the seascape along the coast and out to sea afforded by dune summits and open beaches.