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Wildlife of Hilbre
1. Birds of Hilbre Island.
2. Wildlife on and around Hilbre Island.
3. Hilbre Islands' Status as a Nature Reserve.
  Hilbre Islands' Status as a Nature Reserve

Sea watching © Val Burnett

  Because of Hilbre’s position in the River Dee estuary, where migrant birds feed every winter, it has been a special place to see wading birds and wildfowl (ducks and geese) for hundreds of years. The rocky shore also supports invertebrates such as several species of sea anemones, crabs, annelid worms, and molluscs such as winkles and mussels. In the past, the river was used as a salmon fishery. The grass and heathland vegetation of the islands supports nesting birds such as skylarks and meadow pipits. There was once a rabbit warren, kept as a source of winter food by the medieval monks, and mentioned in later leases.

Since the 1930s, a non-breeding colony of Atlantic Grey Seals has increased from about 10 animals to more than 500 at their peak in August. Many of them disappear in autumn to breed in west Wales, and possibly Scotland. Others remain here all year, hauling out at low tides on the sandbank to the west of Hilbre.

After World War II, Hilbre was bought by the local council, as a public open space, and a place to enjoy wild life. It has since been granted several titles and forms of protection, which are increasingly vital in a world where industrial development and over-fishing have destroyed many river and sea shore habitats. The Hilbre Bird Observatory was founded in 1957 by local experts, who continue to monitor the migration of many species of world wide importance. Most of these are winter visitors, which migrate to the Arctic Circle or northern Europe to breed in the spring. In autumn they move south to warmer quarters in Africa. The Dee provides winter visitors with vital food in the form of invertebrates in the mud and sand of the shore. They rest on the rocks at high water, and it is important that they are not disturbed, as they waste energy every time they fly up. They live near to their energy limits, and a small amount of disturbance could mean that they starve to death.

Hilbre Bird Observatory © Val Burnett

In Britain, a system of Local Nature Reserves (LNRs) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) was set up by successive Governments from about 1960 onwards. Hilbre is an LNR, and part of the larger SSSI comprising the Dee Estuary and the Red Rock salt marsh. There is legal protection for the wild life here, and penalties for disturbing breeding species.

View of Middle Eye at high tide © Val Burnett

European recognition followed for the estuary, as a Special Protection Area {SPA}. The Dee Estuary is at present a candidate for EU Special Area of Conservation. In the 1990s, the Dee and Hilbre were together given further status as a protected wetland area under the international treaty signed at Ramsar in Iran in 1976. Ramsar sites in the many countries involved are those which shelter important populations of wetland species, especially birds. The original Convention issued a statement, accepted by all the governments concerned, that it provided “conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources by national action” and by international agreement.
Hilbre Islands’ owners, Wirral Metropolitan Borough Council, and national organisations such as English Nature and the RSPB continue to look after this precious site, while allowing the public to enjoy its beauty. Following the Country Code is a guide to sensitive tourism.

 © Susan Craggs, 2005

For further information on the biodiversity of Wirral with links to the Hilbre Islands please visit: