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OPINION: Highthorn: Wildlife has to win

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Anyone who knows me is likely aware that I am a huge optimist when it comes to opencast operations.

As I have stated before I can see the potential benefits of coal extraction and likewise understand that subsequent restoration works can have an overtly positive effect on the local ecosystem.

I stand by this view though as time progresses I am becoming acutely aware of the threats posed by surface mining. Many of these such as pollution and disturbance are acutely relevant in regards to the proposed Highthorn surface mine, more so given the sites setting amid some of the region’s most diverse and much loved nature reserves.

Indeed these issues have weighted heavily on me over the past few weeks and as times progresses worries and concerns continue to mount.

I do not profess to agree with everything said by those behind the “Save Druridge” campaign but quite frankly a number of their arguments ring true. Without concrete assurances from The Banks Group how can I condone a scheme that has the potential to make or break the ecological make up of Druridge Bay.

Talk of buffer zones and restoration is all well and good but these topics are broad and open to a great deal of personal interpretation. For me, the needs of men take a back seat when it comes to the needs of wildlife. Yes issues such as traffic, noise pollution, tourism, jobs and profit are each important in their own way but for me the real winner here has to be the environment.

How will Banks ‘mitigate’ against the loss of feeding sites for the bays growing population of pink-footed geese? How will they ensure dust, chemicals and other unsavoury items do not leach into local waterways, or god forbid standing water bodies such as Cresswell Pond?

How will Banks preserve the species already inhabiting the Highthorn site? So many unanswered questions. For me, the scales continue to tilt backwards and forwards and though I implore the notion of ‘improving Highthorn for people and wildlife’, such pipe dreams become irrelevant if proper care is not taken during the earlier stages.

‘Why change what is already working at Druridge’ – a quote from Northumberland Tyneside Bird Club member and fellow young birder Jack Bucknall. This has stuck in my mind of late and has recently inspired me to look in greater detail at the site of the proposed mine.

Yes all the species there could potentially benefit from the scheme in years to come but until then would be left bereft without proper assurances. Among these species of national significance including farmland birds such as yellowhammer, tree sparrow and skylark, all of which are red listed by the RSPB and others such as Greenland white-fronted goose and whooper swan which are rather scarce on a regional level.

Yes The Banks Group have a proven track record with restoration; although the ecological value of Northumberlandia is still to be decided and excluding perhaps their site at Pegswood, though I am aware that the leaking lake is a ‘complicated issue’.

Despite this however Banks are still a multimillion pound company out to make a profit and whether or not I am comfortable putting the natural heritage of Druridge Bay in their hands remains wholly unclear. What is clear however is that the threatened farmland species and countless wetland birds inhabiting the Highthorn site require action, not speculation to ensure their continued longevity.

A sentiment echoed by young ecologist Sacha Elliot who like me wishes nothing but the best for Druridge Bay and its fantastic wildlife. Sacha writes that ‘the notions of offsetting and mitigation are all well and good but Banks must put forth a comprehensive remediation package before planning permission is granted. A package designed simply to show the local community just how they plan to protect the local ecosystem and the species that call it home’.

Among these local treasures such as barn owl, avocet and brown hare. Creatures held dear by the thousands of people who visit Druridge Bay each year.

To reiterate, at present I am neither for against Highthorn. My initial flight of fancy regarding large scale improvements to Druridge Bay has however been quelled substantially.

Maybe it is a step too far to risk what we already have in order to gain more in the future? Maybe it is a step too far entrust the land at Highthorn to a company such as Banks. At present Druridge Bay stands supreme, the gem in the crown of the Northumberland coast, a veritable haven for birdwatchers, nature lovers, dog walkers or anyone else who simply loves the outdoors.

Whatever the case, I am sure that people will make up their own mind. Though with people flocking to the aid of the Save Druridge campaign they seems many already have. From a personal perspective; I would implore Banks to unveil more facts. Show the local community how you plan to conserve our natural heritage.

Give us the assurance that the all be it exciting notion of dedicating the land north of the C116 to conservation will not be overturned should planning permission be granted. I love Druridge Bay and am not in the slightest bit opposed to change, if that change is deemed worth the risk.

Before voicing continued support for either side I require assurances, facts, promises, not speculation and vague notions of future grandeur. Without these perhaps Druridge should remain the same; unchanged, unexploited and perfect in its own special way. Only time will tell it seems and hopefully my fears may be lessened somewhat following the next community workshop.

When it comes to Druridge Bay there can be no half-hearted promises, no shrewd manoeuvring and no deceit on behalf of Banks. Druridge requires action and should the proposed opencast go ahead The Banks Group will have the potential to make or break one of the most ecologically significant sites in Northern England.

A site cherished by thousands, both young and old and even by a number of famous faces including Bill Oddie and Chris Packham, both of whom have showcased their love of Druridge over the past few weeks.

Like these people I love Druridge and when the time comes I will be contacting Northumberland County Council, either in support or objection. I urge everyone to make up their mind and do the same.