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Getting to know the British (Tales of a Reserves Assistant)

Posted: Monday 31st July 2017 by AssistantReservesOfficerERC

The British

The British is a large post industrial area near Pontypool. This summer I have been tasked with trying to understand more about its biodiversity value.

Getting to know The British (Tales of a Reserves Assistant)

Firstly, before I get anyone’s hopes up, this is not a blog on getting to know British people – that subject would need an entire series of books devoted to it and we still wouldn’t be any closer to understanding. Rather this is a blog about ‘The British’, a massive post-industrial area just outside Pontypool. It has been recently taken back by Torfaen County Borough Council and they are working with many different agencies and organisations to help protect and development the site for future generations. Gwent Wildlife Trust are involved in the discussions around the future of the area for biodiversity and nature conservation. 

History
Intensive industry dates back to the British from 1826 when a major ironworks was created on the site. Before hand, some smaller scale charcoal and mining took place. The works produced a massive amount of iron, which was transported via a highly connected transportation network in the area. The ironworks closed in 1883 due to the exhaustion of local ironstone, competition and transport costs. In the twentieth century the British was home to large colliery, which shut in 1970’s. Like most of the areas in the Valleys, the British has seen heavy industry come and go, leaving behind a legacy, both culturally and environmentally.

Biodiversity
As part of my work I have been getting to know the nature of the site and do to a phase 1 habitat assessment – an exercise of assessing and mapping out all the varying habitats so that we can get a clearer picture of the site. We are trying to get a clearer picture of the conservation value of this post-industrial site and what important species and habitats can be found there.

Phase 1 habitat surveys are new for me, I have assisted on one before (note, assisted) and it was quite daunting to be asked to a phase 1 survey on a site the size of The British (roughly 1300 acres). It would mean a lot of walking and I would have to improve my identification skills. Fortunately, I had a willing volunteer who came out each day to help me – Richard, a volunteer on the Gwent Levels and someone who is very good at plant identification and with bucket loads of patience. We divided The British into three sections, two small valleys with lots of industrial heritage and the upland area. We walked around the valleys surveying the habitats, taking advice from phase 1 guidelines and looking for indicator species, i.e. plant species that identify the habitat type, whether it is acid grassland or marshy grassland. This sounds simple, but can be highly irritating – when does acid grassland become heath/grassland mosaic? When does continuous bracken become scattered bracken? How many grains of sand make a heap? 

As much as this hair splitting was a challenge, going out and surveying 1300 acres of the British was a great experience. Richard and I seemed to pick the best days of glorious sunshine and had some amazing wildlife experiences because of this. We saw 18 species of butterflies, including small heaths (declining nationally), dark-green fritillaries and dingy skippers. One lunch time, we sat on the crumpling structure of the old reservoir. We looked up at a raven angrily flying towards a small group of buzzards, the raven really went for them (I am still unsure what upset the raven) and throughout our sandwiches we had a front row seats to this bout. 

The British has a diverse amount of habitats and looking back at old phase 1 surveys, the site is changing and becoming more diverse, but also there are some things that are having a negative impact. Areas of acid grassland in the past are now becoming more diverse and are now classified as acid/heath mosaic and even going fully to heathland, these two habitat types support a variety of species that acid grassland cannot. More scattered scrub is appearing across the site, adding conservation value. However, bracken is encroaching on all fronts. Some bracken is good for biodiversity, but when it becomes dominant it can smoother grasslands and entire hillsides, halting the development of trees, grass and heather. It will be an impossible task to control all the bracken, but our study has highlighted some areas where management could be effective.

The British is special and unique within the landscape. Sites like these are exceptional because the remains of industrial impact the flora and fauna that can be found there, for example the remnants of the iron works have left behind traces of limestone, which have allowed calcareous grassland wildflowers to thrive in an area dominated by acidic soils. Coal spoil has regenerated and has created the perfect habitat for the grayling (nationally declining) butterfly – we saw 69 individuals in one area on a very hot day.
Much has been said about the importance of post-industrial or brownfield sites within conservation circles. But there is still the perception that they are ‘wastelands’ or ‘derelict’ or places where you can dump your rubbish or rag your off road vehicle around. As beautiful as the British is, it is ruined by the fly tipping. One valley (where we saw two dark-green fritillaries) had at least 100 tyres and areas of woodland area wrecked because of off-road bikes. Because the site has a history of industry and being used and abused, the mentality seems to have remained. 

Nevertheless, I am hopeful that the future is positive for the British and with the local authority working closely with local residents and partners like ourselves. Having become acquainted with the British and seeing how special this post-industrial site is, I really hope that future generations of naturalists can enjoy it, in the way I have enjoyed exploring the woodlands, scrambling up coal spoil, wading through knee high heather and chasing commas through marshy grassland.


 

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