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Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative

Colliery spoil sites are an iconic feature in the landscape of the South Wales Valleys, yet they remain gravely overlooked, underappreciated and misunderstood. Regardless of how well nature has transformed the landscape, perceptions of dereliction and despoliation stubbornly persist. What should be seen as an ecological asset is still often viewed as a problem in need of ‘fixing’. A negative public perception of colliery spoil exists, and developing public support and interest in these sites is key in efforts to protect them and the species they support. This process has begun through the ‘Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative’, which was founded for this exact purpose – to raise awareness of the important biodiversity value of colliery spoil sites in South Wales.

Founded in 2015, the 'Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative' is the birth-child of Liam Olds – a young entomologist based in South Wales. Liam's fascination for colliery spoil sites began in his early teens living opposite a former colliery and coking works site in Rhondda Cynon Taf. Liam spent much of his free time exploring the site, seeing what wildlife he could discover. Many memorable wildlife encounters followed and a lifelong passion for natural history began to flourish. After completing an undergraduate degree in Zoology at Cardiff University in 2013, Liam began an apprenticeship in Entomology at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff. Through this apprenticeship, Liam began scientific research into the invertebrate fauna of colliery spoil sites, surveying his local colliery spoil sites for insects and other invertebrates. This revealed an astonishing array of invertebrate species from bees to bugs, beetles to millipedes. Given the numerous spoil tips that exist across South Wales, these results hinted to an important role of colliery spoil habitats in invertebrate conservation.

In response to the excellent progress made during the traineeship in changing attitudes towards colliery spoil, and in gathering the scientific evidence to prove their worth, the ‘Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative’ was founded. The success of these initial surveys stimulated investment from several local councils to explore these findings further. Five years later, almost 20 colliery sites across three local authority areas have now been surveyed. These surveys have revealed colliery spoil sites, often regarded as barren wastelands, to be home to at least 1000 different invertebrate species – a total that is by no means exhaustive and should be considered a mere baseline figure. When such totals are combined with the species totals of vascular plants, mosses, lichens, fungi, birds, mammals, reptiles etc., an incredible community on these sites is revealed.

Importantly, over 20% of all invertebrate species on colliery spoil sites are of ‘conservation priority’ in the UK, meaning that these are species that we should be striving to protect. Incredibly, this even includes species ‘new to science’ such as the millipede Turdulisoma cf helenreadae (nicknamed the ‘Maerdy Monster’), which was discovered in December 2016 at Maerdy Colliery, in the Rhondda Valleys. To date, Maerdy Colliery remains the only known site worldwide for this exceptionally rare millipede. Such discoveries emphasise the importance of colliery spoil sites in South Wales and raise a vital question – why do we continue to destroy these habitats and oversee their continued decline? These are the questions that the Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative seeks to ask and address.

Today, Liam continues to run the ‘Colliery Spoil Biodiversity Initiative’, while also working as a freelance entomologist. Liam uses social media, public talks, guided walks, articles, scientific publications, TV and radio appearances, and other outlets to continue to raise the profile of colliery spoil at the regional and national level.

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