Abandoned mines in Cornwall create wildlife havens

Much has been written about the environmental damage caused by mining, but it can also create unique habitats for species that are rare elsewhere. Cornwall in the southwest of England was once a hotspot for global tin extraction, and dozens of abandoned mines dot the county. Not only do they contribute to the beauty of the landscape, but the former industrial sites (covering 3,000 hectares) have now become mini wildlife havens in an otherwise heavily farmed region. As the UK lacks wilderness and there are serious shortcomings in how protected areas are managed, it is important to identify undisturbed areas such as these where nature can thrive.

Rare species thrive in mining landscape

Tin and copper mining is an important part of Cornwall’s cultural heritage, and has been practised there for thousands of years. However, dwindling reserves and international competition meant all the mines in Cornwall were closed by the last century. Since then, they have gradually been reclaimed by nature and now hold living treasures.

Much of old mining sites is now heath- and scrubland, but industrial activity has created patchy ground – and with that some unusual plant communities. Metal runoff created acidic, nutrient-poor soil, slowing the ground’s recolonisation by vegetation. This has given many uncommon, metal-tolerant plants the chance to grow undisturbed. For example, 11 of the 21 sites where the rare British liverwort Cephaloziella nicholsonii is found are in Cornwall. Seven disused mining areas form the West Cornwall Bryophytes Site of Special Scientific Interest, named for the rare mosses and liverworts found there.

As well as dry scrub, old quarries in abandoned mines have flooded over time and created wetland areas which attract plenty of wildlife. As well as many marsh plants, they also make great habitats for amphibians and waterfowl, which are struggling in many areas due to wetland drainage. They also provide breeding areas for dragonflies and damselflies – a third of Britain’s native Odonata species can be found by old Cornish mines.

Old mines as wildlife shelters

As mentioned earlier, much of the contaminated soil does not support plant growth. Bare, unvegetated ground may not sound like an ideal spot for wildlife, but this is exactly what many insects need. The flat, barren ground can reach temperatures of >40°C, optimal surfaces for insects like wasps to hunt and bask. This is good news given the drastic decline of insects in Europe.

While hazardous for humans, old mining buildings and shafts are perfect structures for animals like badgers and bats to settle in undisturbed. The greater horseshoe bat, an endangered species, makes many of its underground roosts in Cornish mining shafts which mimic caves. They are important as hibernation sites are becoming rarer for large colonies.

No sensible person would suggest increased mining activity to help wildlife. The pollution and habitat loss associated with large-scale operations is highly destructive to local environments. But we might consider leaving abandoned mines as new habitats instead of trying to restore them; they might not be Wilderness, but they support unique life which should be protected.

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