OPINION: Opencast mining – a blessing in diguise?

The site of the proposed mine at Highthorn.
The site of the proposed mine at Highthorn.

Last month, the Gazette reported that plans to lodge a formal application for a major new surface mine had been pushed back again, having already been delayed once in April.

In July 2013, Banks Mining unveiled the Highthorn project, for the east of Widdrington Station, inland from Druridge Bay. It was hoped that a detailed bid could be submitted in the summer of 2014, at the earliest.

The company says it would sustain local jobs for more than a decade and provide an opportunity to add new and improved community and tourism resources to the area.

But not everyone is convinced; more than 2,200 names have signed an e-petition on the Northumberland County Council website.

Here JAMES COMMON urges people to consider the potential ecological benefits of opencast mining.

More often than not in our age of renewable energy and green thinking, any mention of opencast mining and the extraction of fossil fuels is met with scorn and a sense of raging animosity among naturalists, conservationists and the general public alike.

Indeed the initial destruction wrought by mining operations is clear for all to see with deafening explosions, barren craters and a lingering human presence deterring all but the most steadfast creatures. Thankfully such operations are relatively short-lived, at least in an ecological sense and these sites are often restored to the benefit of wildlife and those who enjoy it.

The scars of our mining heritage are clear for all to see in the county though lacking prior knowledge you’d be hard-pushed to find any trace of the degradation caused by what is so often dismissed as an abhorrent and ecological damaging practice.

The area surrounding Druridge Bay provides perfect testament to this, showcasing some of Northumberland’s most ecologically diverse and ascetically pleasing locations on top of what, for the large part, was once a barren wasteland adorned by little other than dumper trucks and high-visibility jackets.

Here a fantastic series of nature reserves, SSSIs and country parks play host to a cast of creatures unparalleled in the country; from the grandiose and flamboyant to the obscure and unobtrusive, it is this diversity of life that demonstrates clearly that opencast mining is indeed a blessing in disguise. At least from the point of view of a discerning naturalist like myself.

The Bay and the reserves contained within boast an assortment of habitats largely absent from the wider catchment; from tranquil water bodies to dense plantations, cryptic Phragmites reed beds to blooming meadows, all of them support an array of creatures on par with any widely publicised National Trust or RSPB reserve.

Among these it is perhaps the eye-catching and scarce residents hold perhaps the greatest allure, especially to those seeking a more breath taking natural encounter.

Among these nothing portrays a greater sense of ecological grandeur than the recolonising marsh harrier, a migratory raptor once driven to extinction in the region due to the regrettable actions of man. Thankfully, after an absence of more than 130 years this graceful hunter once again breeds regularly following the 2009 nesting of a pair at East Chevington, itself an ex-opencast site.

Harriers are far from the only iconic species now residing on our restored quarries; another success story comprises the avocet, a true icon of British conservation and poster boy of the country’s biggest conservation organisation, the RSPB. Brought back from nationwide extinction, this marvellously monochrome wader with its curved bill and formidable parenting skills now breeds routinely at Cresswell Pond, yet another reclaimed industrial site and once the most northerly breeding site of this species in the whole of the UK.

Tales of success are rife in the Bay and captivating species such as the marsh harrier and avocet are now thankfully commonplace. Indeed, as time advances the number of species making use of our restored opencast only increases.

The latest addition to the area’s breeding fauna, the little egret comprises yet another obvious draw to nature-lovers. This immaculate white heron, considerably smaller in stature than our common grey heron wouldn’t look out of place on the set of a vibrant tropical television documentary.

Indeed, this species was once limited to more tropical climes, but following a lightening advance through Britain over the past few decades has now been confirmed breeding at Druridge Pools, marking the first breeding record of this elegant water bird in Northumberland.

These species, though striking and conspicuous are far from alone. From cuckoos to cormorants, spoonbills to stoats, our restored opencasts are home to an unrivalled bounty of charismatic and iconic creatures; though such wild areas are of grave importance to many more endearing species.

The range of species dependent on our post-industrial land really is breathtaking and at times daunting with so much to see, hear, do and, in the case of many of the area’s plant and fungi species, taste.

Truly, one can visit the site daily for a period of many years and still leave feeling surprised, gratified and even elated while over occasions may equally result in frustration or an overpowering sense of bewilderment. Such is the nature of our reclaimed wilderness.

From common wonders such as mallards, moorhens and moles to endangered treasures like bittern, yellow wagtail and red squirrel, natural enigmas including humming-bird hawkmoths, crinkle-cut comma butterflies and flittering goldcrests to brilliant blooming wildflowers, I simply can’t stress how important such sites for our native wildlife and those, such as myself, devote our lives to both enjoying and studying it.

Demonisation, anger and differing opinions aside I ask everyone, before joining the 2,248 people currently opposing the proposed opencast site at Highthorn, near Widdrington Village, to spend an hour appreciating all our industrial legacy has gifted us.

Watch the sunrise over the glistening waters and outlandishly coloured waterfowl of East Chevington. Observe the frantic feeding habits of the innumerable wading birds inhabiting Cresswell Pond.

Enjoy the mesmerising and at times poignant courtship dance of the Great Crested Grebes at Druridge Pools or simply take some bread, head down to the country park spend some time feeding the noisy assortment of swans, ducks and geese. All of which persist here as a direct result of opencast mining.

Surely, with all this in mind, a decade of dust and stone is a small price to pay for what such sites may bring to future generations?