Hilbre Islands, Wirral, UK

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The Hilbre Islands form a nature reserve that is a familiar sight off the coast of the Wirral in North West England. The Islands are home to a wide variety of animals and plants, and their human-related history spans more than 10,000 years.

The Islands consist of Hilbre, Middle Eye (or Little Hilbre) and Little Eye. They are situated in the Dee Estuary, to the west of the Wirral peninsula.

Wildlife

The sandstone rock of the Islands has preserved the footprints of Chirotherium, or Hand-Beast, a crocodile-like animal whose feet appeared to have thumbs and which lived during the Triassic age about 220 million years ago.

These days, the Islands are a good vantage point to see wading birds such as Eurasian Oystercatchers and Curlews, plus other water-feeding birds such as Great Crested Grebes and Brent Geese. The Islands themselves are a handy stopping point for migrating birds such as stonechats and pipits. Birds of prey including Common Kestrels and Buzzards may also be around.

In rock pools en route to Hilbre, you may find crabs and molluscs including limpets, mussels and winkles. Numerous varieties of wrack seaweeds can also be seen. The Islands are home to insects including Common Blue butterflies, dragonflies and damselflies. The sandstone rocks make good homes for moss and lichen and you may also see flowering plants such as Thrift, Rock Sea-lavender and Sea Milkwort.

Short-tailed Field Voles live on the Islands. Other animals sometimes visit from the mainland, including foxes, stoats, weasels and hedgehogs. Hilbre Island is a good vantage point to see Atlantic Grey Seals and sometimes also bottle-nosed dolphins and harbour porpoise.

Human Interest

Evidence of human activity on the Islands dates back to around 8,000 BC, as flints and stone axe-heads have been found there. In 1081 there was a church on Hilbre, managed by Benedictine monks. After King Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th Century, the Islands became a base for military troops en route to Ireland. In the 18th Century, salt-making took place. There was an inn or pub on Hilbre between 1793 and 1826 that served the crews of boats that used the island as a harbour. The innkeeper was rumoured to have profited from shipwrecks and smuggling, but was never prosecuted for any crimes. In 1827 Hilbre became part of the telegraph semaphore system. The telegraph keepers also monitored the traffic in Liverpool Bay, north of the Wirral, and managed Hilbre and Middle Eye as a smallholding, with fields of corn plus cows, sheep, pigs and chickens. A lifeboat station was installed in 1849 and a workshop for the maintenance of buoys was built1 in 1850. A clubhouse for the Mersey Canoe Club was built in 1897, followed by a number of bungalows for holidaymakers.

The Islands became a military base again during the First World War, and during the Second World War they were set up as a Project 'Starfish' decoy that aimed to lure bomber aircraft away from the docks on the nearby River Mersey. The Islands became a nature reserve in 1945.

Hilbre Bird Observatory was created in 1957 and the lifeboat station was converted into a hide for birdwatchers in 1975. A Ranger lived on Hilbre until 2010. The Friends of Hilbre group formed in 2001 to assist Wirral Borough Council with the conservation of the Islands for the benefit of wildlife and the public.

At low tide it is possible for people to walk to the Islands from the town of West Kirby. The route to Hilbre orbits Little Eye and passes to the east of Middle Eye and takes about an hour at a steady pace. If you would like to attempt the walk, ensure you are fully prepared by checking the details on the Friends of Hilbre website.

1The Buoymaster's House and the Telegraph Station are now listed buildings.

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