Study reveals conservation potential of disused mines

Most of the UK's mines could be turned into wildlife habitats once out of use, but their conservation potential remains unfulfilled under current planning rules, an NGO report has concluded.

Gravel pits, rock quarries and open coalmines cover an area of over 64,000 hectares in England alone, most (56,000 ha) of which could be turned into habitats that are crucial for conservation, the Nature After Minerals report found.

“That’s not to say all 56,000 would go back to wildlife habitat – but that is the scale of the potential, which we’re not even coming close to meeting at the moment,” the RSPB’s John Clare told edie.

Over half of all disused mines and gravel pits currently end up as agricultural land, while less than 5% are taken over by forestry. Many more sites could be providing ‘priority’ habitats such as heathland, reedbeds or marshes that are crucial for conservation, as climate change puts additional pressure on species that are already under pressure from human activities.

The report, funded by the Mineral Industry Research Organisation, follows a survey of active mineral extraction sites looking at soil quality and the proximity of species classed ‘priority.’ It found that by focusing on 412 sites lying within 1km of existing habitats conservation targets for a number of ‘priority’ habitats could be met.

But for that to happen, conservation objectives need to be factored into planning early on. Failure to do this is behind the untapped potential of many disused mines so far, which is why the survey chose to look at operational mineral sites.

“These sites are active, they will come to the end of their lives in the coming decades and you need to be getting the planning guidance now so that when they come offline we can do something useful with them,” John Clare explained.

Climate change is making the creation of new wildlife habitats ever more urgent, the RSPB points out. Species already under pressure from human activities are facing additional habitat loss in a changing climate, as higher temperatures force them to migrate north while coastal areas are set to be transformed by rising seas. Already fragmented habitats will make migration more difficult, adding to the vulnerability.

“We’re in a world where climate change is a reality and simultaneously we seem to have lost the Lion’s share of wildlife habitats. We need to create large areas of wildlife habitat joining up the remaining fragments and expanding the place species have to move.

“And that’s where these mineral sites come in enormously useful – so what we’re saying is, this is the new reality, we must create more wildlife habitats; this is a crowded island and mineral sites seem to offer a very cost-effective way of providing those sites in large quantities. ”

Recommendations made in the report include:

  • funding for long-term management of restored sites

  • regional and local planning policies to support habitat creation

  • an overhaul of the “Minerals planning guidance 7: Reclamation of mineral workings”

    More information can be found on the RSPB site.

    Goska Romanowicz

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