Brief history of coal mining
The pivotal role of coal mining in shaping the British way of life cannot be underestimated. For centuries, coal mining has been an essential part of British industry. Historical findings suggest coal was used by Britons even before the arrival of the Romans, with evidence suggesting the Romans learned about coal mining and its uses from Britons. At its peak, the British coal industry employed more than a million people, making it one of the country’s most important industries. Many regions were dependent on it, including South Wales.
When one mentions the words ‘coal mining’, there is an instant association with South Wales and its valleys. With its profusion of high quality coal, South Wales played a pivotal role in Britain’s Industrial Revolution. As Britain began to industrialise itself, more and more coal was needed to produce the steam power on which industry depended. This high demand for coal brought about a ‘boom’ in the South Wales coal industry. Attracted by the availability of work and better wages, people flocked to the south Wales valleys from all over Britain.
Tylorstown Colliery, April 1968 © Glyn Davies
The South Wales Coalfield covered an expansive area, from St. Bride’s Bay in the west to Pontypool in the east. At its peak, the coal industry employed some 232,000 men in 620 coal mines across south Wales. In 1913, 57 million tons of coal came up from these mines – a fifth of the entire output of the United Kingdom. The effects of World War I and the post-war depression, however, brought about a decline in the industry. By 1936, 241 collieries had closed and the workforce had halved. Following a brief revival post-Second World War, the industry continued to decline throughout the second half of the 20th century. By the end of that century, just one deep mine remained in Wales. The coal industry, the most important industrial, social and political force in modern Wales, had all but vanished.
Nearly all the signs of this once thriving industry have been lost with colliery buildings demolished and shafts capped. One thing has remained however, the numerous colliery spoil tips littering the landscape. Centuries of intense mining activity ultimately generated excessive quantities of waste, which was subsequently tipped upon our valleys sides. Such spoil tips have become an iconic feature in the landscape of the South Wales valleys, an industrial and cultural legacy from Wales’ rich coal mining history.
Following the Aberfan disaster in 1966, many spoil tips were cleared amid fears of similar tragedies lying in wait. Those deemed stable remained, left undisturbed to naturally revegetate over time. Over many decades, these spoil tips have been colonised by a wide variety of species and habitats. Once black eye-sores in the landscape, many now support habitats and wildlife of considerable local biodiversity value. Further information regarding the unique habitats and species found on colliery spoil tips can be found in the ‘Biodiversity’ section of the website.
The Aberfan disaster of 1966, where the collapse of a spoil tip above the village killed 144 people, 116 of which were children, changed the fortunes of many of South Wales’ colliery spoil tips. Understandably, many spoil tips were cleared after this devastating event amid fears of similar tragedies lying-in-wait. Those tips deemed stable remained, left undisturbed to naturally revegetate over time. Over this period, many tips have developed interesting flora and fauna assemblages, with many now supporting habitats and wildlife of considerable local biodiversity value.
“many colliery spoil tips support habitats and wildlife of considerable local biodiversity value“
Unfortunately, these sites are greatly overlooked and under-appreciated, despite their biological and heritage importance. Like many brownfield sites, they are regarded as ‘abandoned’ or ‘derelict’ waste land and receive little to no protection to safeguard their future. They face many threats including:
- Reworking to extract useable coal
- Inappropriate reclamation/remediation
- Inappropriate or absence of management
- New opencast coal mining
So, why conserve colliery spoil tips?
As our countryside becomes steadily more degraded for wildlife, colliery spoil tips are becoming increasingly important places for wildlife. These sites provide a must-needed refuge for a range of species rapidly declining in our modern impoverished landscapes. By linking-up with traditional habitats, they also act as stepping-stones in the environment, allowing species to move freely across the landscape. The loss of such sites can have disastrous consequences for wildlife, leading to local extinctions of numerous invertebrate species of local and national importance.
Small pearl-bordered fritillary (Boloria selene) at Clydach Vale Country Park (©Liam Olds)
But its not all about the biodiversity. Colliery spoil tips are also of geological, archaeological, historical, cultural, social and visual significance (see below).
- Social – due to their often ‘open access’ and close proximity to settlements, they are readily used by local people for recreational activities (e.g. dog walking, running and cycling), providing physical and mental health benefits. They often provide the only open-access areas for local people to get outdoors with nature.
- Cultural – colliery tips are an important part of our cultural identity as south Walians.
- Historic – they offer a visual reminder of our rich coal mining history that helped create and shape Great Britain. They also tell stories and family landscape links.
- Visual – they form visible features which are significant in the local landscape and have strong cultural resonance. They are used in regional and local interpretation (i.e. they tell a ‘landscape story’).
- Archaeological – historic structures and remains can be found amongst the spoil.
- Geological – they provide access to fossils and minerals.
“colliery spoil tips are an important part of our identity“
Colliery spoil tips tell the story of their prehistoric, geological, archaeological, historical, social and ecological past and the contribution to the lives of the valley communities past, present and future.
What is the Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative?
Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative is a joint partnership between Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council and National Museum of Wales. It’s principal aim is to raise awareness of the biological importance of colliery spoil tips in order to aid the conservation of these sites. This is delivered through the means of:
- Scientific research – surveying of sites to gain a greater understanding of the fauna (particularly invertebrates) that utilise these habitats.
- Community engagement – public talks, nature walks and other events/activities.
- Publicity – use of social media, website, blogs, articles, and just getting out into local communities.
The gathering of scientific data is key if we are to protect these sites and the species they support – we need the evidence to prove that these sites are important for biodiversity. Without work to assess the biological value of remaining coal tips, we are facing the prospect of some of the nation’s most important sites being lost or inappropriately reinstated.
There remains poor public perception and understanding of colliery spoil tips in the South Wales valleys. Engaging with local communities and the wider public will help in changing the often negative public perception towards colliery spoil tips.
The project has a number of key aims it wishes to achieve:
- Greater public awareness and appreciation of colliery spoil tips (and other mineral spoil) for their biodiversity and heritage
- Appropriate protection of the ‘best’ quality colliery spoil tips
- Appropriate management of the ‘best’ quality colliery spoil tips
- For the colliery spoil tips to become a legacy for future generations to access, understand, appreciate and enjoy.