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From eyesore to green oasis – the hidden beauty of our post-industrial landscape

Posted on 10 September 2015

Ecologists have called for the biodiversity of brownfield sites to be given more recognition and protection after a study co-ordinated by the University of York revealed two former collieries were rich in plants and animals.

Butterflies on a flower (credit: M Ridealgh)

The study of Upton and Fitzwilliam sites near Wakefield, West Yorkshire, unearthed a habitat full of flora and fauna – including orchids, bees, butterflies, grass snakes and bats.

The sites, abandoned to nature when the pits closed in the late 1980s, have proved to be ecologically diverse - and in areas of social deprivation an important focus for the local communities.

A vital element of the project was engaging with the local population who helped the ecologists gather data on biodiversity through ‘citizen science surveys’ and by providing site histories.  

The project revealed the local residents were actively involved in preserving the habitat and that activities considered anti-social, such as quad biking and camping, has actually benefited some species.

The study has been published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, and is based upon work conducted by two Masters Research students from the University of York, Kevin Rich and Mike Ridealgh.

Dr Sarah West, Senior Research Associate at the Stockholm Environment Institute based at York, said: “These sites are really important for wildlife and are absolutely teeming with life. Some have fantastic orchids all over the site, making them really beautiful places.

“There has also been tree planting done by the council and then the local community has come in and put their own apple trees in. They can be really, really useful spaces both for wildlife and for the  local community who live near them.

“Some of the anti-social behaviour that you see on these kinds of sites, like motorbike riding, camping and wood burning,  actually they reset the clock, they make parts of this land bare which is great for some animals, particularly bees, wasps and ants.”

Dr West said more consideration should be given to protecting brownfield sites, particularly if the government intends lifting planning restrictions.

She added: “These spaces are absolutely vital for the local community. Some of the people were ex-miners telling us about the history of the site or going out and doing surveys for us. We got lots of people who were dog walking and doing surveys for us.

“Before we did this work, some people just saw it as a place to exercise their dogs, but then they began looking at what was around them; it opened their eyes up to the fact it was a really valuable place.”

“It is a really interesting time for those sites because in July this year the government announced plans to lift planning restrictions on brownfield sites so some of these sites might need protection.”

The two year project was conducted under the OPAL (Open Air Laboratories) project and funded by the Big Lottery Fund.

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