The Marine and Coastal Access Act (MCAA) came into force in 2009 and was intended to provide an improved system of management and protection for the marine and coast environment of England and Wales1.

One of the provisions of the MCAA was the creation of a continuous, well signed, and managed coastal path around the entirety of the English and Welsh coastlines.  Once completed, it will apparently be the world’s longest coastal walking route at nearly 2,800 miles2

Wales completed and opened their coastal path, all 870 miles of it, last year.  In England, 65% of the coastline is already accessible, however, the process of opening up the rest has been a slow process with only 20 miles of new coastal path opened since 20093.  The remainder is timetabled to be completed by 2020 (Fig.1.).

Fig.1. Coastal access England map (source: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/england-coast-path-overview-of-progress)

Natural England is tasked with this path’s creation, with several teams around the country already dedicated to working on the project.  NE has summarised some of the key considerations as follows4:

  • The trail will avoid areas like private houses, major ports and sensitive conservation sites.
  • Where the trail erodes, the plan is for the path to be rolled back or replaced.
  • Opening up the coastline for all to enjoy and support local services through increased visitor spend.
  • NE will visit the affected landowners and occupiers to discuss the route options.
  • Draft proposals are published and comments can be made.
  • The Secretary of State makes the final decision and then the new right of access comes into force.
  • Signs and waymarks will guide visitors along the route and steer them away from any sensitive areas.
  • NE can make directions to restrict or exclude people for certain reasons such as land management or nature conservation.
  • Users of the path are responsible for their own safety and must keep dogs under effective control by law.

Although it is rambler’s dream having access to vast unexplored areas, one of the main aspects concerning conservationists is that the MCAA offers a coastal margin or ‘spreading area’ for the public.  This means that in theory, the public will have unfettered access to the land between the sea and the path whether it be beach, cliffs, salt marsh or mudflats.

Although guidance issued by NE states that nature conservation areas will be protected by either restricted access or public exclusion, many of the objections to the coastal margin have been internal ones rather than just landowners (pers. comm. Dave Mercer, NE Ainsdale Senior Reserve Manager).  The concerns are that wildlife, particularly ground nesting or migratory birds used to being in relatively inaccessible places will suddenly find themselves disturbed by human activity, especially dogs, once a path, and the land between that and the sea, is made accessible.  There are also safety concerns with allowing spreading room where mudflats are involved such as the Ribble Estuary NNR, also within the Ainsdale NE team’s remit.

As the Ainsdale NNR is situated on the coast, the path will pass through the reserve (and the Ribble Estuary and Cabin Hill NNRs) at some point.  Currently, no plans have been developed for the exact trail route through the reserve.  Early thoughts are for the path to follow the main track which runs along the side of the railway line from the Ainsdale site office, all the way to the National Trust land to south.  Alternatively, it could run along the beach which will probably be the most preferable as it doesn’t change current access significantly and therefore would be the easiest to implement.

Another potential issue is that the England Coastal path is designed for foot traffic only but there is increasing pressure to allow ‘higher’ access rights i.e. horse-riding and cycling.  At the Ainsdale NNR, these activities, being of a heavier impact, are restricted to certain areas of the reserve (Fig.2.).  Although, this is not an issue at present, it could become a concern in the future if access rights are extended.

Fig.2. Access for horse-riding and cycling (source: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/469278/ainsdale-sand-dunes-horse-riding-cycling.pdf)

With so many landowners making up the Sefton Coast, the NE England Coastal Path team assigned to this area will have to meet with the partnership to determine the best way to implement a continuous route whilst avoiding sensitive wildlife areas and grazing livestock.  Hopefully, they will be able to link together existing paths without causing any significant changes to the current structure of the protected areas or increasing the need for more fences, signs and locked gates, both of which would add to already constrained budgets.  How this will affect the Ainsdale NNR is a bit of an unknown at the moment so we will have to watch this space…..

References

  1. JNCC, 2010. Marine and Coastal Access Act, 2009 [online].  Available from: http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-5230  [Accessed 28 April 2017].
  2. http://www.nationaltrail.co.uk/england-coast-path
  3. FARMER’S WEEKLY, 2016. What the England Coastal Path could mean for you.  Issue 1106.
  4. NATURAL ENGLAND, 2017. The England Coast Path National Trail [online].  Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/england-coast-path-overview-of-progress  [Accessed 28 April 2017].