The words conservation and preservation often go hand in hand. Parc Slip Nature Reserve in South Wales breaks that link. What was a landscape torn apart by mining is now one of The Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales prime reserves. Rob Pickford, chair of the Trust talks with Nigel Ajax Lewis who was there from the start and Megan Howells the reserve’s ranger about how that transformation was achieved, what can be seen today and the challenges for the future.
Turning It Around
Megan shows me an old photograph. Parc Slip is a steep sided, sometimes vertical, circular chasm in the rock, an open cast coal mine. Roads stagger downward along galleries blasted to access the coal and to provide passage for the oversized trucks that are scattered across the site. A mountain of waste, dumped once the coal has been extracted, squats alongside.
By the late 1980s politics and economics were bringing it toward the end of its life. Nigel talks about the future he saw and how in 1989 he met with British Coal to put forward a radical plan, to turn it into a nature reserve. The end of coal mining in Wales opened up money that could turn that vision into reality. The Glamorgan Wildlife Trust had a presence nearby at Parc Pond because of Great Crested Newts. Lapwings were common. In the 1980s there were 20 breeding pairs. Nigel built from those foundations.
Some had doubts but Nigel is not easily put off. Top soil had been set aside but had degraded. Some just thought that the land was too damaged to recover. Walking the site today the soil is thin, gritty and black. In 1993 British Coal finished refilling the pit and in 1999 the site was transferred to the Wildlife Trust. It is now one of their key reserves, one that hosts a busy visitor centre.
Nigel recalls the scale of the task.
‘This was and remains one of the few reclamation projects that planned to turn an open cast mine into a nature reserve. Quarries are regularly flooded to make reserves suitable for birds and wildfowl in particular. Few have had the land put back on this scale, just for nature.’
Megan explains that the difficult soil has advantages. The ground warms quickly retaining heat. She talks of the partnership with the Reptile and Amphibian Society that has led to the clearance of trees, creating space for adders to bask. Grass snakes are common. Megan adds,
'Few people have seen an adder but you can come to Parc Slip to watch them basking on the black earth. You can learn how they live and how larch cuttings have been used to create hibernacula to see them through the winter.’
Wild flowers flourish in the nutrient poor soil. The Trust regularly sows millet, dwarf sunflower and meadow flower seeds. Autumn attracts visitors to witness the kaleidoscope of colour. Flocks of finches, starlings and redpoll take advantage of the feast. The plants provide cover for small mammals over the winter. Orchids and harvest mice can be found. Occasionally a kestrel appears.
Megan tells me about the dragonflies. Initially developed for the newts and latterly to increasing the diversity of birds, ponds and scrapes are now scattered across the reserve. Not fed by streams, these dew ponds benefit from the plentiful rain. Wetlands have been created on top of a plateau. Parc Slip sits on the boundary between upland and lowland Glamorgan. This interface attracts 26 varieties of damsel and dragonfly including the aptly named Scarce Blue Tailed Damselfly. Declining across the UK it befits from the small temporary puddles that form here.
A spectacular site?
It depends on what that means. Yes, Buzzards and now Red Kites can be seen to ride the thermals above the reserve. The draw here however comes from taking time to see nature at its scale and pace. This enables Parc Slip to play to its another of its strengths, to be a place for education. Nigel recalls that back in the 1990s the vision was for a Nature Park, a place to learn. Today we might resile against such a definition but in a world in which we are often only fed glamour it is important that we remind ourselves and our children that wonder lies all around us in the unassuming. School children come in coaches to discover more. A Watch Group for them is held on the reserve. There are opportunities to learn specialist skills, to identify the Dubenton Bat or to learn botany. Groups of photographers hone their skills.
This is not to say that the unassuming is not special. The butterfly transect undertaken each year have identified 25 species of butterfly. This is a place that you can see the Grayling, the Dingy and the Grizzled Skipper.
When I ask Nigel and Megan if this reclaimed landscape, carefully planned, stays in its allotted place they smile at each other. Early photographs of the reserve show a flat, almost bald landscape, ideal in many ways for the lapwing. There is now significant tree and shrub cover. This has implications for the Trust’s Lapwing Project that aims to stabilise a population back at this location. Volunteers have helped to push back the scrub, cattle have been used to keep the ground cover short and an electric fence installed to keep out predators. It has had some success, birds have fledged but as yet not in sufficient numbers to sustain an expanding population.
A new wetland created in 2013 is now progressing through fen succession. It has attracted birds, for example ringed plover have nested here, but perhaps not at the scale that had been hoped. In contrast the dragonflies and the invertebrates have welcomed the transformation of fields, where sheep would have quietly and privately grazed, into a complex and diverse habitat.
‘Our job is light the green fuse and see what happens.’
Parc Slip in a Nutshell.
Plans for reserves are important but people do not control everything. Nature lives by its, not our rules The orchids have simply appeared, probably seeded from the Kenfig Dunes some miles away. Sometimes the task is to give space to serendipity. If the coal industry had not come to an end, if people like Nigel had not been there with the vision, expertise and the guts to make it happen Parc Slip Nature Reserve would not be here.
There is a challenge for the Wildlife Trust. Resources and grants are scarce and it is hard to persuade people of the importance of monitoring the evolving biodiversity of the site. Megan is clear.
‘We are at a stage now where we need to understand better how the reserve is working. Only then can we know how to support its transition to its next stage.’
Parc Slip is also about giving back. All will reflect on the terrible events of 1892 when an explosion killed 112 men and boys. For many decades people lived around a large open cast mine. Some quite rightly will remember the employment it gave. Few will forget the noise and the dust. As I leave a couple who have just walked around the reserve tell me.
‘This is a place where we can unwind and quietly look around.’
Parc Slip inspires, it’s a place to be enthused and a place to learn. It sustained a community over many years. It now plays that role in a different way.
Experience the beauty that Parc Slip has to offer first hand, find more information here.