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.
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 in 620 coal mines across the south Wales coalfield. Nearly all the signs of this once thriving industry have disappeared. While colliery buildings have been demolished and shafts capped, some things have remained – the spoil tips. Historically, wildlife suffered as the south Wales coalfields expanded to fuel Britain’s Industrial Revolution but the numerous spoil tips left behind are now providing extraordinarily-rich and unique new habitats for wildlife.
Over many decades, these previously baron industrial wastelands have been colonised by a variety of species and habitats. They have undergone a radical transformation, and many now support wildlife and habitats of considerable local biodiversity value. Despite this, colliery spoil tips are greatly overlooked and under-appreciated as biologically interesting places. Due to their brownfield label, they are often viewed as ripe for development and receive little to no protection. Inappropriate ‘restoration’, inappropriate management, and natural succession also threaten these biodiverse sites.
Wildflower-rich grassland at Cwm Colliery, Beddau (©Liam Olds)
Heathland on Gelli Tips, Rhondda (©Liam Olds)
So, why does this matter?
As our countryside becomes steadily more degraded for wildlife, colliery spoil tips are becoming increasingly important places for wildlife. These abandoned areas 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, including those of national importance. Such losses have knock-on consequences in the ecosystem, negatively impacting other animal groups.
Small pearl-bordered fritillary (Boloria selene) at Cambrian Colliery, Clydach Vale (©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.
Did you know? Around 15% of nationally rare and scarce invertebrates have been found on brownfield sites, including 50% of rare solitary bees and wasps, and 35% of rare ground beetles – Gibson (1998).
What is the Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative?
The principal aim of the Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative is to raise awareness of the biological importance of colliery spoil tips in order to aid the conservation of these sites. This will be 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.
Relatively little is known about the inverterbates on colliery spoil tips, with the expection of butterflies and moths, hence these are the focus of the project. Prelimary surevys have already revealed many new insights into the associated invertebrate fauna, including many species of conservation interest - for example, 65 bee species were found on colliery spoil tips in 2015, 47% of which were not common.
Mountain bumblebee (Bombus monticola) at Gelli Tips (©Liam Olds)
You can help!
The Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative is in urgent need of funding to continue its vital research and engagement work in south Wales. If you would be interested in supporting this project, please visit my crowdfunding page. Any donation would contribute greatly to the conservation of wildlife in south Wales, and in establishing connections between people and wildlife.
Any donation is greatly appreciated.
What your donation will do
Your donation will enable me to:
Conduct invertebrate surveys on further tips across south Wales, generating important biological records that will aid science and ultimately help protect these sites from development
Help connect people with nature through engagement with local schools, environmental groups and the wider public
Engage with more people, raising public awareness of colliery spoil tips and the important species they support
Increase the conservation knowledge and ID skills of local communities by delivering ecological training courses and workshops (e.g. training courses on bumblebee, hoverfly and butterfly identification). This will increase local expertise, aiding the conservation of these taxonomic groups
Provide advice on colliery spoil habitat management and it’s invertebrate fauna
(left) Demonstrating sweep netting as a method for recording grassland invertebrates at Dare Valley Country Park (©Liam Olds)
Please visit my website for further information
Any amount rasied will be of great benefit.
Many thanks for supporting my project.
All the best,