A life-long fascination, a haven for rare species and a multi-legged monster new to science… Liam Olds takes us through his amazing journey into the wildlife of former colliery sites
Since my early teens, I have been fascinated by coal tips and former colliery sites. Growing up in the south Wales Valleys – an area bestowed in rich coal mining history – I was never short of sites to explore.
Acting as my own personal nature reserve, these sites produced many memorable wildlife encounters and a lifelong passion for natural history began to flourish. Many years later, a career in nature conservation followed and a unique opportunity to study the sites that first introduced me to natural history, and have shaped my life ever since, presented itself.
In January 2015, I began an apprenticeship in Entomology at Amgueddfa Cymru Caerdydd – National Museum Cardiff, shortly after completing an undergraduate degree in Zoology at Cardiff University. During the course of this apprenticeship, I embarked on what would be life-changing research into the invertebrate fauna associated with coal tips and colliery sites in the south Wales Valleys. Prior to this work, very little was known about the invertebrate fauna of such sites beyond a few more ‘charismatic’ groups such as butterflies and dragonflies. Initial results were encouraging and investment from a number of local councils followed, allowing further sites to be studied. To date, 15 sites across two Local Authority areas have been surveyed revealing a diverse invertebrate community supporting numerous rare and scarce species.
An important refuge… A total of 901 invertebrate species have so far been recorded across these 15 sites – a figure that is by no means exhaustive but nevertheless suggestive of a diverse fauna. Of these, 195 species (~22% of the total) are deemed of ‘conservation priority’ in the UK owing to their Nationally Local, Nationally Scarce or Nationally Rare statuses. It appears, therefore, that coal tips and colliery sites are acting as an important refuge for rare and scarce species declining in the wider countryside and have a role to play in nature conservation.
Incredibly, species that had never before been recorded in south Wales, Britain, and even the world in the case of the ‘new to science’ Maerdy Monster millipede (Turdulisoma cf helenreadae), were found, reaffirming my belief that these sites are ‘special’ and worthy of conservation and further investigation.
For more than a century, the landscape of the south Wales Valleys and the fortunes of the people who lived here were shaped by coal mining. The scars of heavy industry were everywhere and black tips of coal waste brooded ominously over the Valleys. But times have changed. Mining and heavy industry have gone, nature has acted and the landscape has been transformed. Through the power of Mother Nature, the once black coal tips have been transformed into visually-spectacular wildlife havens. Once a symbol of an ecologically destructive industry, they have ironically become an important component of the rich biodiversity of the south Wales Valleys and many now support habitats and species of considerable local and national conservation significance.
Unfortunately, regardless of how well nature has ‘reclaimed’ these sites, they are still often seen as a problem in need of ‘fixing’. As a legacy of a previous age, there is often a desire to sweep away the signs of a sometimes painful past.A negative public perception exists, and developing public support and interest is key in efforts to protect these sites and the species they support. Through the ‘Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative’, I seek to raise the public profile of these sites and champion their conservation, while continuing my research into their fascinating and unique invertebrate fauna.
Liam Olds is founder of the Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative