WILDLIFE experts have warned of an ecological time bomb unless an invasive plant is removed from Hightown sand dunes.
Sea buckthorn, a spiny shrub with orange berries that is native to the east coast of England, was introduced to the Sefton Coast in the 1890s to help stabilise blowing sand.
Since then the demise of the rabbit population has led to the alien plant smothering other natural dune vegetation with several rare species said to be at risk.
Recent efforts to target the removal of the shrub have been hampered by confusion over the land’s management, but after receiving consent from Natural England for Sefton Landscape Partnership to take over the project, moves are being made to control the overgrown plant.
Formby-based ecologist Dr Phil Smith said that it was vital the work went ahead.
Dr Smith said: “Over many years land managers on the coast have fought to control sea buckthorn and, where successful, the results have been highly beneficial.
“Initially we have identified three patches of sea buckthorn north of Blundellsands Sailing Club as priorities for control.”
Since the 1980s, Dr Smith has seen several scarce species such as early marsh orchid, marsh helleborine, variegated horsetail and autumn gentian, gradually decline.
One of the clumps has affected the habitat of the sand lizard, the rarest species of lizard in the UK.
Confined to pockets of heathland and coastal sand dunes, the warmth-loving sand lizard is at risk in Hightown due to sea buckthorn growing on west and south facing dune slopes.
Studies carried out by Dr Smith have shown that the buckthorn clumps have grown up to 13ft in just 15 years.
“This shows the rapid growth rate of sea buckthorn and how quickly it can get out of control,” said Dr Smith.
Despite experts’ warnings some residents living near to the clumps have objected to their removal saying that birds and other creatures had made their home in the plants and that they also stopped sand blow and deterred intruders at the back of gardens.
Dr Smith added: “A few common birds may use them for cover, or feed on the berries in winter but few species nest in the pure clumps.
“On balance, these small benefits are greatly outweighed by the adverse impacts.”
A small team from Sefton Coast and Countryside have now begun removing the shrub.