Brownfields: more than just derelict land

It is easy to be misled into thinking brownfields are nothing but waste ground prime for development – even the term ‘brownfields’ does not do the habitats justice. Politicians in Westminster, the Welsh Assembly, and our local districts, are constantly urging for development on so-called ‘brownfield’ or ‘abandoned, waste ground’. I understand this is a contentious issue; people need jobs and our economy needs to grow, but can we really continue to do this at the expense of our natural environment?

Our planet is currently in the midst of its sixth mass extinction event — the sixth wave of animal and plant extinctions in the past half-billion years. Extinction is a natural phenomenon and these mass extinction events are nothing new – we all know about the extinction of the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago. Until now, these mass extinction events have been the result of catastrophic events like asteroid strikes and volcanic eruptions; the current crisis is caused almost entirely by man. Species are being driven to extinction on a global-scale as a consequence of our activities. Whether it is the result of habitat loss, the introduction of exotic species, or human-induced global warming, current rates of species extinctions are unprecedented. Scientists appropriately refer to this sixth mass extinction event as the ‘Anthropocene’. Our whole global mind-set towards wildlife and the environment needs to change, but that may be asking too much – we obviously can’t work miracles here.

And this brings me back to brownfields. People, especially those in government, need to change their misconceptions about brownfield habitats. Buglife, the invertebrate conservation charity, have been fantastic advocates for brownfields and their importance for biodiversity.

Did you know that 12-15% of the UK’s nationally rare and scarce invertebrates have been recorded from Britain’s brownfields? Importantly, this figure is likely to be a great underestimate.

Although Buglife have made fantastic steps in helping to change negative public and political perceptions towards brownfield habitats, lots more still needs to be done. As our countryside becomes steadily more degraded for wildlife, through agricultural intensification and development, brownfield habitats are becoming increasingly important places for wildlife. Brownfields 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. In south Wales, colliery spoil tips are doing just that – they are providing a must-needed refuge for rare and scarce invertebrates rapidly declining in the wider countryside. Scattered across the south Wales coalfield, these tips are also allowing species to move freely across the landscape. Despite their importance, like many other brownfields, colliery spoil tips receive little to no protection. They continue to be prioritised for development, threatening the future of some of our most special wildlife.

The Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative was founded in response to this, with the aim of raising awareness of the astonishingly-rich biodiversity these sites often support. It is hoped that through the surveying of sites across south Wales, important biological records will be generated that will help safeguard the future of these iconic habitats. We have already made some fantastic findings to support the notion that colliery spoil tips are important habitats for invertebrates in south Wales, results that will feature in a blog shortly. It is important to highlight that the benefits of conserving colliery tips don’t stop with biodiversity. Colliery spoil tips are of geological, archaeological, historical, cultural, social and visual significance too. They are an important part of our cultural identity as south Walians and offer a visual reminder of our rich coal mining history. It is hoped that this project can build upon its previous success in 2015 and have some impact in conserving the most iconic habitats in the south Wales valleys. Please follow the project on Twitter or Facebook, and follow our blogs. I’ll leave you with this recent quote from Chris Packham in response to the publication of ‘The State of the UK’s Butterflies’ in 2015.

As a society we are guilty of standing idly by as once common species, never mind the rarities, suffer staggering declines. This is a situation that should shame us all.” Chris Packham

Please stay tuned for updates on the project.