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Squirrels and Sand at Formby Point

The effort is minimal and the rewards are great on this exhilarating walk through an area of great significance for wildlife.

Distance 3.5 miles (5.7km)

Minimum time 1hr 30min

Ascent/gradient 50ft (15m)

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Well-worn paths through woods and salt marsh, plus long stretch of sand

Landscape Pine forest, sand dunes and a vast sweep of beach

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 285 Southport & Chorley

Start/finish SD 278082

Dog friendliness On leads in nature reserve but can run free on beach

Parking Either side of access road just beyond kiosk

Public toilets At start

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1 Start just left of the large notice board. Follow the 'Squirrel Walk', with its wooden fencing, to the left and then round to the right. Keep straight on at a crossroads, where there's a sign for Blundell Avenue. There are many subsidiary paths but the main line runs virtually straight ahead to Blundell Avenue. Cross the avenue to a fainter path almost opposite, with a 'No Cycling' sign and traces of bricks in its surface. Follow this, skirting around the edge of a field (brick traces are still a useful guide). Go up a slight rise then across more open sand hills to a line of pines on a rise ahead. Skirt left round a hollow and you'll see some houses ahead.

2 Just before reaching the houses turn right on a straight track. This swings left slightly then forks. Go right, down steps, then straight on down the side of a reed-fringed pool. Beyond this keep fairly straight on, towards the sand hills. When you reach them swing left then right, picking up a boardwalk, to skirt the highest dunes and so out to the beach.

3 Turn right along the open and virtually level sand. The firmest walking surface is usually some way out from the base of the dunes. Walk parallel to these (heading north) for over 1¼ miles (2km). The shoreline curves very gently to the right but there are few distinctive landmarks apart from signs to various approach paths. It would be all too easy to just keep on going, so watch for a sign for the Gipsy Wood Path.

4 A distinct track winds through sand hills then swings more decisively to the right near some pools, where there's a sign board about natterjack toads. Follow the track back into woods and, at a junction, go right. The track curves round between woods and sand hills then joins a wider track by a Sefton Coastal Footpath sign. Go through a patch of willows then bear left to a line of pines on a rise. From these drop down to a broad path with a gravelly surface and follow it left into woods again. Stick to the main path, with timber edgings and white-topped posts, bear right by a large 'xylophone', and it leads quickly back to the start.

It has to be said that most of the Cheshire and Lancashire coast is fairly urbanised. And as you approach through the town of Formby there's little to suggest that here will be any different. It seems to be somewhere to retire to, or perhaps to commute to Liverpool. This makes Formby Point all the more remarkable.

Tall, shady pine woods form your first impression. They may appear ancient but were actually planted less than 100 years ago, to help stabilise the sand dunes. No one at the time could have suspected that they would become such an important haven for red squirrels.

The dark peaty soils that occur inland of the dunes produce a variety of crops, but a particular local specialty is asparagus. You may still see this growing in the fields that border the reserve early in the walk. On the way out towards the shore you pass a lake, natural in origin, where swans, ducks, coots and moorhens breed.

The sand dunes at Formby form the largest dune system in England. The line of dunes immediately behind the beach is partly stabilised by the rough-edged marram grass, but high tides and high winds can still change their shape in a matter of hours. The feet of visitors also erode the fragile dunes.

The beach itself is littered with patches of shell debris. Under the sand there are many invertebrates which attract wading birds. One of the easiest to recognise is the oystercatcher, black and white apart from its bright orange eyes, beak and legs. Many other waders and gulls may also be sighted.

As you walk along below the dunes, you will see some darker layers exposed by erosion of the sand. These sediments were formed around 4,000 years ago, when the shape of the coast was somewhat different. In places they have been found to preserve the tracks of animals and birds, so that we know, for instance, that oystercatchers were plentiful then too. Human footprints have also been found. These suggest that people hunted and fished here, but the most evocative report is of a medley of small prints suggesting children at play.

From the end of the beach you wind through the sand hills again, past pools where natterjack toads - one of Britain's rarest animals - breed. You'll need to be lucky indeed to see one. Two other rarities that are also found here are great crested newts, around the pools, and sand lizards, in the drier areas.

Finally the walk returns through woods again to the start. Apart from squirrels you may see treecreepers, small brown birds that - as their name suggests - crawl all over the bark of the trees looking for insects.

While you're there

One way to get to Southport would be simply to keep walking along the sands. It's a resort that retains much of the genteel flavour of its Victorian heyday. Amenities are largely as you'd expect, with a boating lake and amusement park, a small zoo and an aviary in Hesketh Park. At low tide the sea can be miles away and instead of windsurfers you'll probably see land yachts.

Where to eat and drink

The excellent Freshfield Hotel (turn left at the junction about 400yds (366m) east of the level crossing) only serves its good-value food on weekday lunchtimes. This could be a good reason to time your visit accordingly, especially if you're a lover of real ale. At other times, or if you've children in tow, try the Grapes, at the other end of Massams Lane.

What to look for

You'll probably not need to walk too far or look too hard before encountering the red squirrel colony. Once familiar throughout England, they have largely been supplanted by grey squirrels, originally from North America, but the wide treeless expanses inland from Formby have helped keep them away here. A much greater rarity, which you'll be lucky to see, is the natterjack toad.

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