And so I find myself drawn again to the proposed Highthorn Opencast plans, a controversial proposal put forth by Banks Mining involving the extraction of 5 million tons of coal in the vicinity of Druridge Bay, Northumberland. I say "in the vicinity of" Druridge Bay because contrary to the claims of some local people Banks have not proposed to dig up the famous beaches, dunes or nature reserves associated with the area.
The area at the heart of this debate is in fact of very limited importance comprising a series of desolate fields bereft of life following years of intensive management and grazing. Banks recently announced a few surprising alterations to their initial proposal, all of which I feel will greatly improve the area for both people and wildlife in the near future. I've taken a fair bit of flack for my "support of coal" over the past months, some of which has been frankly quite amusing. For the record (and the unbelieving) I would however like to reiterate again that I have no loyalty to Banks, nor am I "funded" in any way shape or form by the company. I care deeply about Druridge Bay and welcome any opportunity to improve the area for local wildlife. I was delighted to this week uncover yet more young people of a similar mind set, all of whom realize the ecological benefits of the proposed surface mine. Likewise I fully understand why these people have opted not to voice their opinions on the current matter, no doubt for fear of being swept away in a tide of "filthy coal" remarks. Anyways, I am aware of the ecological implications of burning fossil fuels. Admittedly they aren't all that nice! Regrettably Britain's economy still requires coal to function thus I will continue to support the proposed plans.
|Brown Hare, Druridge Pools.|
First of all I would like to point out that Banks have recently abandoned a huge portion of the proposed site, equivalent to some 400 football pitches of land. Though coal extraction will not take place here Banks have promised to restore the land nonetheless, in sense creating one large nature reserve as opposed to the excellent but highly fragmented reserves currently adorning the bay. Likewise Banks have ensured the safety of existing reserves by proposing the use of "buffer zones" that will protect existing SSSI's from disturbance. These in turn will be restored further extending local habitat. Combine all of this with the restoration that would take place upon completion of the mining process and we are in my opinion faced with an opportunity to increase the ecological value of Druridge Bay ten fold. Surely an additional 1000 football pitches of nature reserve is better than the few acres currently in existence? Not that I dispute the value of the existing NWT sites, all of which hold deep meaning to me. I however am firmly of the "more is better" mindset.
Those opposed to the Highthorn scheme are more than happy to point out species that could potentially suffer as a result of mining operations. I wonder if these same people are aware that many of the species residing in Druridge Bay are not doing all that well. Take Lapwings for example. Yes these metallic green treasures breed at Druridge, notable around Northumberland Wildlife Trust's Druridge Pools reserve. 'Peewits' and other species such as Redshank and Snipe, all of which breed in well managed grassland are at present, extremely restricted in terms of suitable breeding space. Waders require cover to shield their eggs and chicks from predators and thus are left highly vulnerable in the short cropped grasslands that currently adorn much of the area. If it wasn't for the control of corvids at nearby farms and the efforts of NWT I fear these species could well be lost from the bay all together. For a second example take the Avocet. Yes Avocets do breeding in the Bay, notably at Cresswell Pond. Given their territoriality, this reserve provides enough room for only a few nesting pairs and should freak weather conditions or predation occur that years crop of young may be lost entirely. In a sense Avocets exist in Druridge Bay by the skin of their teeth. Wading birds are far from alone in this regard, other bird species such as Reed Bunting, Skylark, Meadow Pipit and Yellow Wagtail find themselves confined to small areas of suitable breeding habitat whilst the same can be said for mammals such as Brown Hare. Anyone with an ounce of ecological knowledge will realize the enormous threat posed by habitat fragmentation and the damage caused by intensive agriculture. It baffles me how anyone who professes to care about conservation or the continued longevity of Druridge Bay would oppose plans that would allow animal populations to increase significantly. It is surely common sense that more suitable habitat means more animals? It is therefore my opinion that objecting to these plans is in sense capping the success of the very species we profess to adore. Surely a thriving population is better than one that merely exists? What is better, one breeding pair of Marsh Harriers or three?
|Kestrel, Druridge Pools.|
I fully sympathize with those opposing the proposed opencast on the grounds of light pollution, traffic or other such anthropomorphic issues, though they do not immediately bother me. Most of the ecological arguments I have seen to date however have been flawed, at best. Pink-Footed Geese do feed at the current site though these could easily be appeased via offsetting and are provided with a host of suitable fields elsewhere in the immediate area. Red Squirrels, well unless they have adapted to a purely ground dwelling lifestyle then I suspect they will cope just fine should Highthorn go ahead. The small stand of pines at risk of removal are highly unlikely to hold even one Squirrel given their proximity to other suitable stands of forest. Based on personal experience of Opencast sites at Stobswood, Shotton and Blagdon it is clear to me that even a working opencast may provide better habitat than the blanket mono-culture currently monopolizing Druridge. I cannot name one species likely to be displaced as a result of Highthorn and the few that will not immediately benefit from the scheme will undoubtedly remain at a constant through the sites years of activity. Among these local icons such as Little Owl, Otter, Stoat, Roe Deer and Kestrel.
Obviously I have expectations of Banks, I want concrete proof that the company will live up to its motto and stick to promises made during the consultation process. It would however be nothing short of idiotic to ignore the potential benefits this scheme could bring to the area. I am well aware that this post may inspire yet more ranting and raving but having grown up in and around Druridge Bay I feel I really must press the issue further. Some of my very first memories were forged in the Bay, it was Druridge Pools and Cresswell Pond that first sparked my interest in nature and it was Druridge that undoubtedly pushed me towards my choice of degree and current career path. Change is not always a bad thing, though I understand the opposition put forth by certain parties I sincerely think Highthorn has the potential to transform Druridge Bay from a great site to an astronomical wildlife haven on par with any of the larger RSPB reserves. Thankfully Northumberland Wildlife Trust seem to realize this, as do a number of young wildlife enthusiasts and number of other interested parties. Only time will tell what the future will bring but whatever the outcome, Opencast or not I will continue to cherish Druridge for what it is, an extremely special location.
|Pied Flycatcher, Druridge Pools|