Beaches across Sussex are to be closed for months to protect visitors from getting splinters.

Thousands of tonnes of timber have been dragged up beaches in Worthing, Shoreham, Lancing and Brighton and Hove this week, breaking up and leaving shards of wood littering miles of shoreline.

Several beaches in Sussex remain closed as the clear-up of debris from the sunken Ice Prince cargo vessel continues, but council bosses have denied this is a reaction to any "compensation culture".

Instead they are warning people to stay away from the beaches and fear the massive clean-up could affect tourism heading into the spring and summer.

Representatives from all the coastal councils met in Worthing yesterday to discuss the operation with coastguards, harbour masters, the Environment Agency and contractors themselves.

Mac Skeet, the senior foreshore officer in Worthing, said: "It's going to be a long job that's for sure.

"The bulk of the timber is being cleared very efficiently by the contractors and they will be back to clean it more thoroughly before people can be let back onto the beach.

"But I wouldn't like to say how long it's going to take. Obviously those shards are sharp and they will be harmful."

Workers from contractor DRS, which was appointed by the cargo ship's insurance company, have spent the week dragging nine foot planks up Worthing beach so they cannot drift back out to sea.

Once a space between the Lido and Worthing Pier has been cleared they will then collect the timber in a holding area before hand-picking splinters of wood from the pebbles and shingle.

A spokeswoman for Worthing Borough Council said the process, known as riddling, is likely to take "weeks, maybe months" as they continue to clear the town's five mile coastline.

As visitors swarm to the coast to see the devastation, tourist figures have rocketed but traders fear numbers could plummet in the spring if the wreckage isn't cleared in time.

Tony Malone, of the Worthing Society, said: "When the timber arrived on the beaches it brought hundreds of people in to see it.

"But now that the initial spectacle has rapidly deteriorated it will become a junk yard and will have a negative impact on tourism."

Nature reserves in the Shoreham area may have to be left littered with debris for the fear of bulldozers damaging the already fragile environment.

And beaches in Brighton and Hove could wait even longer to be cleared.

A spokeswoman for Brighton and Hove City Council said: "Obviously we have the same problem as Worthing with the splinters. None of our beaches are closed but we have warning signs up.

"Fortunately not a lot of people are swimming at this time but we wouldn't advise people to walk around bare foot.

"The clean-up has started in Brighton but when they finish in Worthing there will be more contractors to help. If you consider the Napoli disaster it took three months to clear up.

"Our emergency planning officer is hoping it will take six weeks but we just don't know. It will almost certainly be cleared up by the summer."

Council officials, contractors and maritime agencies spent hours pouring over aerial photographs of the timber littering the coast.

They will decide over the next week how, when and where to move it to.

John Rodway, the corporate and public safety manager for Adur District Council, said: "This wood, in one way or another, will be recycled. It's not going to end up in a landfill or a tip.

"We must establish a benchmark for a clean beach. Shoreham, for example, is a nature reserve so it can't have bulldozers going up and down it.

"Having closed all the beaches because there was a lot of wood in the surf we can now see quite visible hazards on the beach. I'm quite highly confident that by Easter they will all be cleared up and safe.

"The safest thing to do is close the area, put a fence around it and say, 'No-one can come in here at all, ever again'.

"The pragmatic thing to do is to warn people of the dangers, because the beach itself already has many hazards from the water to the pebbles."