Environment People

Meet the Wirral ranger who wants to be reincarnated as a Hilbre Island seal

By Emma Gunby at

There have been many highlights to Matt Thomas’s remarkable 16-year career as a countryside ranger in Wirral, but his pick of the bunch is a little unexpected – being bought lasagne and chips in a West Kirby supermarket café by Matt Baker from BBC’s Countryfile.

The unlikely pair had spent seven hours on a particularly cold January day, filming a special programme on the Hilbre Islands, including 3 hours spent on a boat off the Wirral coast.

Wirral Council ranger Matt Thomas on Hilbre Island 2

Wirral Council ranger Matt Thomas on Hilbre Island

Matt said: “He was taking part in the Strictly Come Dancing tour at the time and he’d been performing the night before, in Birmingham, I think.

“The poor man was absolutely exhausted and it was freezing cold, so we ended up having lasagne and chips in a supermarket café in West Kirby.

“I think people were a bit surprised to see Matt Baker sitting there.”

view-of-middle-eye-from-hilbre

View of Middle Eye from Hilbre Island

It’s not all showbiz for the busy ranger, originally from Birkenhead, who began his career with Wirral Council during a gap year from studying for an ecology degree at Liverpool John Moores University.

He said: “I joined the ranger team as part of a year out from my studies and never left. I went back to university to finish my course and they offered me a job as soon as I graduated.

“I’ve worked across the whole of the Wirral but for the past seven years I have been responsible for looking after the Hilbre Islands.”

Seal on Hilbre

Seals on Hilbre Island

Hilbre Island is part of a network of three islands which are designated sites of special scientific interest (SSSI) and are protected by law to conserve their wildlife or geology.

They are among only a handful of tidal islands in the UK which can be walked to at low tide. Others include The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, in Northumberland, and St Michael’s Mount, in Cornwall.

For many years, the islands were owned by the Mersey Docks & Harbour Company but were sold to the local authority in 1945 and are now maintained as a nature reserve and popular visitor attraction.

alan-hitchmough-from-hilbre-island-bird-observatory

Alan Hitchmough from Hilbre Island Bird Observatory

A number of volunteer groups, including the Friends of Hilbre Island and the Hilbre Island Bird Observatory, work alongside Matt and his team to protect the landscape and the many species of birds which make their home there.

Matt said: “My first duty is to maintain the islands and manage access so people can continue to enjoy visiting Hilbre without damaging it, or the wildlife which lives there.

“There are thousands of birds which nest on the island and it is recognised as an internationally important site for wading birds.

“One of the biggest attractions is the large colony of Atlantic grey seals. There was a peak count of 700 this year and this is mainly because the Dee Estuary is now very, very clean, so there is an abundance of food.

“There is also plenty of space on the sandbanks for the seals to haul out, which is basically seal speak for chilling out.

“Hilbre Island seals have the best life. At high tide they swim around catching fish and at low tide they haul themselves onto a sandbank and chill out in the sunshine.

“I don’t believe in an afterlife but if I did, I would definitely want to come back as a Hilbre island seal.”

5 facts you probably don’t know about Hilbre Island*

  • The Seagull Inn was run on Hilbre between the 1790s and the 1830s.
  • There were monks living on Hilbre Island for over 500 years.
  • The ruined redbrick building is a former Lifeboat Station, which was still in operation until 1939. The crew ran or rode on horseback from Hoylake before rowing out to rescue stricken sailors.
  • An exclusive gentlemen’s club leased a house on the island in the late 19th century and named themselves the Hilbre Club.
  • Hollywood stars Paul Bettany and Stephen Graham filmed a movie on the island in 2013.

*Information sourced from the Friends of Hilbre Island