Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Highthorn Opencast; Thoughts and Musings.

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


Monday, 23 February 2015

Tackling Teeside (and Durham)

Now anyone who knows me will know I'm not often inclined to venture outside the realm of my beloved Northumberland. Having made a promise to myself on New Year's Eve I yesterday found myself whisked off across the border in an effort to mop up some glaring lifers. All in all Saturday proved truly wonderous with Andrew Kinghorn sharing his local knowledge and unveiling some fantastic local sights. Despite dipping Rough-Leg, Black Guillemot and Shorelark (much to the dismay of Sacha) I still managed three somewhat overdue lifers and a number of year ticks to boot. 

After scoffing a Macdonalds breakfast and meeting Andrew we soon set out in search of our first target species, Long-Eared Owls. Having been promised fantastic views of our Tuftie little friends it is safe to say expectations were running high and much to my delight the Owls didn't disappoint with not one but three of charismatic creatures noted  during the course of the morning. Next came a successful attempt to land me the first of my horribly overdue ticks. A short drive and a yomp through some rather soggy fields yielded a single Jack Snipe, a species that has avoided me at every turn since I first began birding almost a decade ago. Elsewhere here Two Kestrels hunted the damp grassland and a Buzzard took flight from a nearby hedgerow. Five Snipe were inadvertently flushed on our way across the site with other species noted including Grey Heron and a rather smart leuistic Pheasant which Sacha later informed me was likely a marker bird used to alter shooters to the presence of his correctly coloured comrades. Poor sod.
'Taiga' Bean Goose
Following our success with the Snipe we set off towards Teeside in search of perhaps the day's most impressive bird. I confess I've never actually explored Teeside but found myself slight bemused my the mix of industrial buildings and excellent nature reserves. The sight of a dead horse lying by the side of the road however didn't do much to expel existing stereotypes. Anyways, after a fair bit of searching we finally located our target bird, the "taiga" Bean Goose. Having struggled for years to find my own Bean it was nothing short of sublime to have one content my grazing my the roadside as opposed to grazing with a distant flock of c3000 Pink-Feet. The bird in question performed admirably, giving good views for the duration of our stay and allowing for a excellent comparison with the 6 Pink-Footed Geese it had chosen to reside with. Barnacle, Canada and Greylag Geese were also noted here though before long we were on the road again, this time heading for Saltholme in search of the reported yank Teal.

Truth be told I would have liked to explore Saltholme in greater depth having never visited the site prior this. Our schedule would not allow this however thus I contented myself with shoddy views of the Green-Winged Teal which snoozed on the far bank during the duration of our stay. Elsewhere at Dormans Pool a Water Rail screamed from the reeds provided a long overdue year tick and the usual cast of wetland denizens milled about contently in the sun. Among these; a single Lesser Black-Backed Gull, Herring Gulls, Tufted Duck, Teal, Coot, Mallard and yet more Barnacle Geese though the reported Bittern managed to elude us. Drat. From here we headed off in search of some grub before braving a trip to Hartlepool in search of another first (at least for me). Rarely venturing outside of Northumberland I rarely have the chance to see Ring-Necked Parakeets which have not yet fully colonised the region. Indeed the last "parakeet" I laid eyes on turned out to be an escaped Alexandrine Parakeet. This in mind I was overjoyed to finally catch up with two of the sqwarky green things in Hartlepool park though Sacha and Andrew looked less than amused. One of the pint sized parrots even burst into song, lovely!

Following our tour of urban Hartlepool we tried and failed to pick up both Shorelark and Black Guillemot and instead settled for a short walk around the fish quay. The Eiders here showed well, as is there nature though little else other than some burly Cormorants and a lot of Gulls were noted. From here we set of in search of the reported Rough-Legged Buzzards in County Durham, again dipping our quarry. I did manage to spot a Green Sandpiper however, not the commonest bird up north in the winter season. Ending the day on a high we were rewarded with nice views of a Little Owl perched on top of a very obscure and extremely run down building. A second Green Sandpiper was picked up here, this time by Andrew though before long it was time to head home.

There you have it; three lifers and a further two year ticks. It appears I am well on my way to completing my personal challenge and seeing more species in 2015 than my entire life to date. With a "life list" standing at a measilyy 219 species this shouldn't be too hard at all.. 

Fluffy lump of screechiness