Beauty from the scars in County Durham quarries
PUBLISHED: 17:43 18 April 2011 | UPDATED: 19:13 20 February 2013
Old quarries litter the North East but, far from being the industrial scars they once were, they are providing a vital habitat for rare and endangered wildlife. John Dean reports
They are sites most probably associated in many peoples minds with environmental damage, places where the landscape is torn apart for commercial gain. However, quarries also provide superb habitats for wildlife once the extraction of aggregates has been completed and they are allowed to return to nature.
Wildlife organisations including wildlife trusts and the RSPB are increasingly aware of their importance and are working hard to make people realise the gems that exist where once all was dust and industry.
One of the most stunning examples is Bishop Middleham Quarry. Nestling in the County Durham countryside, close to the village of Bishop Middleham, the quarry has not been used for that purpose since just after World War Two, and even then on a small scale. Major quarrying had stopped in the 1920s.
Since then it has developed naturally as one of the Norths most important nature reserves, particularly for wild flowers, eventually being taken over in 1992 by Durham Wildlife Trust, which runs it on a long lease from the Church Commissioners.
For Trust Reserves Manager Mark Richardson, it is an excellent example of the unique qualities that quarries possess.
He said: Bishop Middleham is a good example of quarries as nature reserves. It has added importance because it is a magnesian grassland site. Magnesian grassland is one of the worlds rarest habitats and much of it is concentrated in our area. That makes Bishop Middleham precious. It represents a remnant of what was on the site before quarrying began.
It has been largely self-seeded and has developed to be home to some of the most important floral species in the country which, in turn, attract some excellent butterflies.
One of the reasons quarries are so good for some species of plant is their history. Traditionally, because of what happened to them, the surface soil is fairly thin. That means that some plants can do well on them. Another reason they do well is that the soil does not have large levels of nutrients which means that plants that might out-compete with the likes of orchids cannot do so.
And because they are large holes in the ground, quarries are very hot places - they are furnaces - and that means that some wild plants do very well.
In the case of Bishop Middleham, the combination of conditions has
encouraged profusions of nationally and internationally rare species, including Blue Moor Grass, Moonwort, a very small fern with leafs fringed with half-moons, and Common Rock-rose, important because it is the food plant for the endangered Northern Brown Argus butterfly caterpillars.
Also doing well in the quarry is the Dingy Skipper butterfly, which is threatened elsewhere but which relishes the patches of bare earth within the quarry, the ideal habitat for the insect.
The site is also home to the rare orchid, the Dark-red Helleborine, of which there are 2,000 spikes in Bishop Middleham, thriving among half a dozen endangered orchid species.
Mark Richardson said: The success of so many rare plants is a perfect example of the value of old quarry sites. It really is a globally important place.
All of which may explain the most famous and most surreal moment in the life of Bishop Middlehams quarry.
Eight years ago, a pair of bee-eaters, one of Europes most colourful birds, arrived in the quarry and proceeded to create a nest in a
Ignoring the fact that they were supposed to have done this many hundred miles to the south, rather than on the UK mainland, they proceeded to rear the first chicks in the country since 1955.
The event caused a national sensation and people flocked to the quarry from all over the country, marshalled by the wildlife trust and the RSPB, who established a public viewpoint overlooking the birds favourite feeding area.
The bee-eaters, which were supposed to be in southern Europe, only bred for one season and did not return to the site, but it was the perfect example of the superb qualities of quarries as wildlife habitats.
There are similar quarry-based nature reserves dotted all across the UK, many in the North of England, many under the control of Durham wildlife trusts.
Recently, the RSPB also acknowledged the importance of such sites by
establishing its national Nature After Minerals project with Natural England, with support from the Minerals Products Association.
RSPB officers say that such sites can provide excellent habitats like woodland, reedbeds and heathland and should be encouraged wherever possible. The project has already launched schemes to create new reserves in Dorset and Staffordshire.
According to the RSPB, if all environmentally-suitable quarries in England were returned to wildlife habitat the country could meet nine out of 11 of the Governments targets for biodiversity in one fell swoop and create thousands of hectares of space for wildlife.
RSPB Conservation Director Mark Avery said: Quarries can have a major impact on the landscape - but once they have reached the end of their life they have a fantastic potential to deliver habitats for threatened wildlife.
There are some wonderful nature reserves up and down the country which have been created in former quarries with wetlands for otters and wading birds, woodland for nightingales and woodpeckers, heathland for natterjack toads and grayling butterflies and much more besides.
Many important areas of wildlife habitat have disappeared over the years but this project has proven that with passion, dedication and hard work we can restore these areas to our countryside for the benefit of both threatened species and generations of nature lovers to come.
Turning a gravel quarry into an area of lakes, reedbeds and meadows is a major planning exercise which can take years and get mired in bureaucracy. Councils are often not doing enough to help get these plans through quickly and smoothly and as a result we may be missing vital opportunities to provide habitats for wildlife.