The Dearne Valley, a 15 mile stretch of land between Barnsley and Doncaster in South Yorkshire was once home to 30 coal mines. The closure of these mines in the second half of the 20th century led to mass unemployment and the area being named as the most despoiled landscape in Europe.
However, drive through the area now and on the surface you would see little evidence of its previous industrial use. Stand on top of one of the old spoil heaps, now a grassland buzzing with insects on a warm summer’s day, you will look out over what is a very green landscape.
The restoration of the coal mines and their associated infrastructure has created this landscape. A diversity of restoration methods has led to a diversity of habitats, from open water and reed beds, to meadows and woodlands. It is also a very well connected landscape, both for wildlife, with its array of hedgerows and waterways, and people, with the Trans Pennine Trail, a major cycling and walking route, running through the heart of the valley.
Huge social problems remain in the area, with many parts being in the bottom few percent of the Index of Multiple Deprivation. There is also a sense of disconnection with this new landscape, both from people who experienced the closure of the mines and from people who have moved in to take up jobs in the distribution warehouses which now line many of the roads in the area.
We hope to focus much of our work in the new phase of the OPAL project (www.opalexplorenature.org) in this area. OPAL is a UK-wide partnership project which helps people to explore, study and enjoy their local environment.
Through the project we are hoping to provide opportunities for people to reconnect with this landscape starting by mapping the history and ecology of ex-industrial sites. We aim to do this by asking people to share their knowledge of the history of the landscape, including previous industrial uses, how different areas were restored and current activities that are going on. We would also like to help people to undertake surveys of the wildlife on these sites. By doing both of these, we can then help people to explore how the history of sites has affected their current ecological value.
Our activities will kick off with three Nature Days at sites across the Dearne over the summer. Watch this space for more details!