Scotland's Grand Canyon- a tour of opencast coal sites in East Ayrshire
One of the perks of working for a nature conservation organisation is the occasional opportunity to get out of the office and see colleagues in action and the special places for wildlife we fight for.
Over the past year, RSPB Scotland staff have been working to highlight the sorry state opencast coal mines have been left in across Central Scotland, following the collapse of the two biggest surface mining companies last year. We are pressing for action on restoration, and robust regulations to ensure the same problems don’t happen again. Regional staff have visited these sites on many occasions over the years, but we decided it was high time some of us less familiar went to see the impacts first hand.
So, on a grey Monday morning, we were whisked away for a ‘grand tour’ of East Ayrshire’s opencast coal mines. Before long, we started to spot mountains of overburden- a mix of soil and rock dug out of the massive opencast pits - metres from the main road.
Our first stop was the now derelict site at Powharnal, near the village of Muirkirk, which was mined by Scottish Coal - at the time, the largest mining company in Scotland and second largest in the UK. After crossing a small woodland, we were on the site [Please note: there is no right of access to these sites and any visits must be authorised by the landowner]. What we didn’t know immediately, gazing across a ‘loch’ that looked to be about 20 hectares, was that below the surface lies a ‘void’ of at least 50 metres deep, filled with ground water. A few gulls bobbed along the surface, surrounded by steep slopes of the overburden mounds.
Walking on the edge of the void at Powharnal.
Unsurprisingly, the flooded voids at this and other sites are causing serious concern for local communities, and the water level looked alarmingly high, and within just a few metres of the road and River Ayr.
What strikes you walking around the site is the sheer scale of it. We trouped to the top of the overburden mound and were greeted with a view of more of the same. You’d be forgiven for thinking that such operations must, surely, be located well away from sensitive wildlife areas.
But unfortunately, perhaps the most shocking fact about the Powharnal site is that a big chunk of it, about 100 hectares, is within the Muirkirk and North Lowther Uplands ‘Special Protection Area ‘ or SPA, protected under EC law. ‘Special’ because it is considered prime habitat for breeding populations of hen harrier, short eared owl, merlin, peregrine and golden plover. The habitats that support these birds, and a wealth of other species, include important areas of peat bog. What the picture shows below is the 45 degree angle of the overburden, smack in the middle of the SPA.
Overburden smack in the middle of the SPA.
So how did the site come to be left in such a state? Allowing mining in a protected wildlife site doesn’t exactly sit well with the Scotland’s reputation as a country which values its special places for nature, or its ambitions to transition to a low carbon economy. Seeing the site was certainly a harsh reminder of the consequences of our energy-hungry lifestyles. It was an interesting experience to relate my own energy use to the landscape right in front of me.
Open cast coaling was nevertheless big business in Scotland until last year, when Scottish Coal and ATH Resources collapsed. It became apparent that there would be massive difficulties in restoring several sites left behind, including at Powharnal and also Grievehill, another site overlapping the SPA. These sites were consented on the strict basis that restoration standards would be high, to avoid breaching European law.
Even though the companies originally set up financial bonds - insurance policies to ensure restoration happened in case they went bust - it emerged after their collapse that the bonds were massively inadequate. The shortfall has been estimated at £200 million across Scotland, with the majority of this in East Ayrshire.
Looking at the images here, you can see the enormity of the task at hand. How do you shift that much earth, truck by truck, and begin to bring nature back to the area? And who is going to pay for it? With the issue of breach of with European law (and associated heavy fines) looming, clearly a plan needs to be put in place as a matter of priority.
View of the void at Powharnal from the top of the overburden mound.
After our walk through Powharnal, we stopped for a quick view of the Duncanziemere site where coal is still being extracted by Hargreaves, one of the few remaining operators. We expect to see an application to extend this site soon. Across the road is Low Moss - a lovely example of a raised mire habitat, with the sound of birds enjoying it. Whilst it doesn’t seem right that any new sites should be consented until we have sorted out the restoration challenge, at the very least we hope that any new plans will avoid the most sensitive areas. Otherwise, an extension could wipe out an important home for nature.
Our last stop before heading back to the office was in the valley housing the adjoining Greenburn and House of Water sites. The former is operated by Kier Mining, and the latter has been taken over by Hargreaves but is a big part of the ‘restoration challenge’. The view from here was perhaps the best example of the day of what can happen when mining continues across and defines an entire landscape. I have been to the Grand Canyon in the US, and the exposed seams at these mines reminded me in no small way of the spectacle. Let’s hope that we see concrete action on restoration soon. And let’s hope that these areas are supported to transition away from industry that is continuing to leave a damaging industrial legacy in Scotland.
Allan Whyte, Marine Policy Officer at RSPB Scotland, gives us an update on the campaign for Marine Protected Areas in Scotland.
Sandeels are probably not an animal you are overly familiar with; you will hopefully have read a little about them on our website. However, this small, silvery fish is something of a superhero in the sea. Sandeels are utterly vital for marine animals like seabirds, dolphins, whales and porpoises. However, sandeel populations are declining, largely due to the impact of climate change on the marine environment.
Sandeels are a vital food source for puffins and other seabirds.
As many of you will know, the Scottish Government has proposed Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) to protect a range of species, including sandeels and black guillemots, but has ignored the other 23 seabird species which breed around our coasts.
We will keep fighting for MPAs for Scotland’s seabirds, but right now the most effective thing we can do is to make sure our Government lives up to its promise to protect sandeels and black guillemots. Our seabird populations are under increasing strain from a lack of food and the impact of climate change and it is vital that we protect these species and the food they eat.
This infographic depicts the impact of climate change on the marine food chain.
We’re asking people who care about Scotland’s marine environment to write to their MSPs telling them why protection for seabirds and sandeels is so important to them.
There are three things our Government must do when it finally announces which MPAs are designated this summer:
The map below outlines where proposed MPAs are located. Are any near you? You can also take a look at an interactive (and lots of great pictures of marine wildlife) at www.SaveScottishSeas.org.
So who exactly do you write to? You will have 7 list MSPs and one constituency MSP. To find out who your MSPs are, visit www.scottish.parliament.uk/msps. To save on postage, you can place all 8 copies of your letter (addressed to each individual MSP) in one envelope addressed to The Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh, EH99 1SP.
Keep checking our website and blogs for updates on how things are going.
Thanks for all your help and support for giving nature a home at sea.
Stacey Adlard, a member of the Seabird Tracking and Research team (STAR), tells us about preparations for the upcoming season.
Seabird tracking project takes flight
Over the Easter weekend, the 2014 Seabird Tracking and Research (STaR) team descended on the RSPB Inverness office for first aid and rope training, getting to know each other, sorting and packing enormous amounts of kit, and an Easter egg hunt. Afterwards, the four teams dispersed across the country to their designated sites; this year, teams are based on Orkney, Fair Isle and Colonsay, with the new addition of a roving West Coast team - us.
We are made up of Stacey and Emily (Emily worked on the project last season on Colonsay, and Stacey has years of expertise from working with seabirds in the Antarctic!). Our role this season is to try and fill in the gap in the tracking data that currently stretches along the West coast of Scotland between Colonsay and all the way to Orkney, and to do reconnaissance surveys of a number of island sites which have the potential for use later in the season or in the future. As mid April is too early to start seabird tracking, we began with the reconnaissance part of our project.
After leaving Inverness, we drove South West to our first Island recce. Island number one was Ailsa Craig; the remains of an old volcanic plug, about 10 miles out to sea from the coastal town of Girvan in South Ayrshire. This steep-sided lump of granite is probably best known as being the island from which curling stones are produced, and remains of the quarrying could be seen in a number of places.
Ailsa Craig (photo: Stacey Adlard).
Curling stone quarry remains (photo: Stacey Adlard).
We spent two days on Ailsa Craig, in which time we circumnavigated the island and climbed to its summit. Although very dramatic and a fantastic place to visit, the seabirds were mainly very inaccessible, and as a result we are unlikely to be able to use the site for tracking later in the season.
The West Coast roving team (Emily and Stacey) on the summit of Ailsa Craig (photo: Stacey Adlard).
Cliffs on Ailsa Craig (photo: Stacey Adlard).
After Ailsa Craig we headed to Oban and caught the ferry out to the Outer Hebrides. Our next adventure was to recce Berneray and Mingulay, which are the two southernmost islands in the Outer Hebrides. We packed our camping gear and chartered a boat. First stop was Berneray, where we were dropped off and left to explore. Berneray is a steep sided wedge shaped island with dramatic cliffs to the South and lower lying land stretching gently down to the sea to the North. As a result, some areas are great for seabirds, but totally inaccessible for us to reach them, whereas other areas are well within our reach, but too low for the seabirds to consider nesting on them! Despite this, we passed a pleasant couple of days; the highlights being watching a couple of otters playing along the shore, and the inquisitive grey seals that followed our every move as we traversed around the island.
Mingulay, as seen from Berneray (photo: Stacey Adlard).
Next stop was Mingulay, and the plan was the same; traverse around the island looking for suitable sites. In comparison to Berneray, Mingulay felt very civilised as we were able to sleep in the small converted bothy, occupied by the National Trust for Scotland warden and his two companions who were working on the old chapel house ruin to stabilise it. I spent my birthday on Mingulay, and in addition to my human companions, shared it with 4 sea eagles, several hundred grey seals, two corncrakes and a lot of seabirds (although only the humans shared the chocolate cake!).
The Old School House bothy on Mingulay (photo: Stacey Adlard).
Grey seals enjoying a day at the beach on Mingulay (photo: Stacey Adlard).
Next destination on our road trip was the Flannan Isles. This remote group of islands lies 20 miles west of the Isle of Lewis, and we enjoyed an exhilarating ride aboard a very powerful RIB to get us there. The dramatic arches and stacks are evidence of the fierce Atlantic storms that batter the islands during the winter months. An unsolved mystery surrounds the Flannan Isles; just over 100 years ago, all three lighthouse keepers mysteriously disappeared from the island without trace. These days the lighthouse is automated and tended by helicopter. The Flannans appear to be summer breeding grounds for vast numbers of puffins, razorbills and fulmars, many conveniently positioned for us to track later in the season. I suspect the trickiest part of working here will be finding a space big enough to pitch a tent that the puffins haven’t already claimed!
The Flannan Isles (photo: Stacey Adlard).
After these reconnaissance surveys, the time came for us to get ready for the tracking part of our season. This meant we needed electricity and a base to work from, instead of living in a van and tent, so we headed for Skye for a couple of weeks to charge, discharge, test, recharge and test again (!!!), all of our 169 tracking devices and get everything else ready for the season.
Tracking devices discharging at night (photo: Stacey Adlard).
When tracking commences, the first stop for us will be the Shiant Islands (between Skye and the Outer Hebrides), where we intend to start with Shags and Razorbills. The other STAR teams will also be starting their tracking work around now so best of luck to them, and here’s hoping for a good and successful season for both human and seabird alike!