Wildlife in the Void; Exploring a Working Opencast.

Last week threw up the opportunity to indulge in a new and all together exciting experience. Instead of seeking wildlife around nature reserves and country parks I found myself invited to explore two working surface mines in order to gage for myself what creatures exist around these as “lifeless” and “dirty” sites. Contrary to the opinions of many, I am not actually opposed to opencast mining. Sure surface mining is not everyone’s cup of tea and some of the arguments against the process may well be rooted in fact (I in no way, shape or form dispute climate change). This in mind however having lived next to a working opencast for almost a decade I have come to realize just how important these sites are in terms of local biodiversity; providing a veritable oasis among vast expanses of over-managed, overgrazed farmland. An outlook only strengthened by last week’s foray into the no man’s land surrounding the Shotton and Blagdon mines. Truly, the wealth of fantastic wildlife on show around these bustling and very much active sites surprised even me..

Arriving at the site mid-morning the myths surrounding these “empty craters” were immediately dispelled upon catching sight of no less than eight Roe Deer contently grazing the perimeter mounts not 50m from an active haulage road. Utterly unfazed by our presence these usually timid creatures showed immaculately for some fifteen minutes, far from disturbed by the industrial activities taking place only a short distance away. Next came stunning views of six Brown Hares, a nationally declining species which appears to be thriving in the rough grassland associated with the opencast soil mounds. A promising start if ever there was one but for me it is birds that truly capture my heart and thankfully the site appeared crammed to bursting with a veritable smorgasbord of avian delights. Here Stock Dove and Linnet; both  species red listed by the RSPB resided  in impressive numbers. Likewise amber list species such as Skylark and Meadow Pipit roamed around in droves whilst charismatic raptors such as Kestrel and Buzzard drifted lazily in the thermals above us. Far from an ecological wasteland it seems. Further exploration of the site revealed yet more treasures; dazzling Wigeon and Teal grazing around the newt migration ponds. Migratory winter Thrushes foraging in their hundreds around newly created wildflower meadows. Mute Swans, Jays, Stonechats, Snipe, Pied Wagtails and even a charismatic Green Sandpiper found pottering around in one of the sites many vegetated drainage ditches. Truly, I saw more species in a two hour stint in this active industrial site than I would in a day scouring the “green and pleasant” fields that had once adorned the site. Wildlife clearly does thrive in an opencast setting, aided by careful planning and mitigation measures implemented by the sites custodians, whoever they may be.

Not that I needed any more convincing as to the significance of the site but passing words with a few regular human visitors revealed yet more interesting information about the location. Red Squirrels and Otters, had both been sighted in the vicinity of the mine. The latter making use of carefully constructed tunnels to bypass the sites roads and exploit the various pools strewn around the area. Both Short-Eared and Barn Owls had been observed hunting the aforementioned perimeter mounts. Little surprise given the numerous vole holes observed during the course of my visit. Indeed the grassland covering said mounts bore some resemblance to a wheel of Swiss cheese; crisscrossed with tunnels left by the small rodents as they traveled to and throw in search of food. Wonderful tales comprising many threatened animal species though what truly captivated me was tales of Peregrine Falcons hunting and roosting amid the sites plentiful machinery, much to the joy of those working the site.

As you have probably gathered by now; my whole “opencast” experience was a rather pleasant affair. Despite the gaping void, haulage roads and high visibility jackets the site struck me as a wondrous nature reserve of sorts; with wildlife a ’plenty coexisting alongside a very controversial process. Given my experience both here and elsewhere I can confidently say that opencast mines are far from the ecological deserts they are portrayed and before assigning stereotypes people should get out and explore just what these sites have to offer in terms of biodiversity and conservation. Of course many my dispute this claim and each and every person is of course entitled to their own opinion. Indeed the issue surrounding coal mining and fossil fuels in general is a complicated affair though with the UK still set on using such power sources I take will some solace from the natural spectacles associated with surface mines should further sites open in the future.

 

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James Common
Amateur naturalist, nature writer, conservationist, blogger and aspiring author. James is currently studying an MSc in 'wildlife management' and writes regular posts for Wildlife Articles, Conservation Jobs and Environment South Africa. He has been published, in print, on a number of occasions and tweets regularly at: @CommonByNature
James Common

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