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An active limestone quarry in the Limburg province of the Netherlands. Photo: Michael MacDonald

Rehabilitating disused old mines into havens of nature

It’s a question everyone involved with environmental conservation must wrestle with. How to convince the world of the benefits of a protected environment? We may feel that they are obvious, but decision-makers and the general pubic may need more persuasion, particularly in terms of the benefits to people as well as wildlife.

This is where TESSA (Toolkit for Ecosystem Service Site-based Assessment) comes in. Developed by BirdLife International and others, it is a relatively simple tool to help users determine the value of ecosystem services (benefits that people receive from nature, such as clean drinking water, or recreational opportunities) provided by a site and who benefits from them, and to explore the impact of different land uses. This data can be used by NGOs advocating for better environmental conservation or by public officials making decisions on land-use at a given site.

TESSA isn’t the only tool for ecosystem services evaluation, but it is freely accessible, requires only basic technical and scientific knowledge, engages local stakeholders, and works on individual sites, rather than regional or larger scales.

Recently, TESSA has been applied at several mineral extraction sites (both active and post-extraction) across northwest Europe as part of a major project known as RESTORE. This is funded by EU Interreg IVB northwest Europe to explore and demonstrate the benefits of rehabilitating mineral sites for nature and people. Currently, there are about 7,200 quarries covering 250,000 ha of northwest Europe, which provides a huge opportunity for biodiversity conservation.

One site that was assessed within RESTORE is Middleton Lakes, UK. Located on the floodplain of the River Tame in the greater Birmingham area, this was a gravel quarry until 2006. It is now an RSPB Reserve, but the original rehabilitation plan for the site was to create a country park.

Using TESSA, the RESTORE project team estimated that while the carbon stock of the site as a nature reserve is higher than if it was a country park, the annual net greenhouse gas sequestration is lower, due to the presence of methane-emitting reed beds. The team also interviewed visitors to Middleton Lakes and those to a nearby country park to understand their motivations for and expenses in visiting the sites.

While the nature reserve receives fewer visitors, it provides an additional resource for the local community, some of whom would not visit a country park. The team concluded that the overall recreational value of the Tame Valley was increased by the addition of a nature reserve alongside the country park.

TESSA was also used at Curfsgroeve, a former limestone quarry northwest of Maastricht in the Dutch province of Limburg. Quarrying began there in the 1950s, and ended in 2009, when the land was handed over to the province of Limburg and a decision was made to turn the former quarry into a nature reserve.

The site is managed by Stichting het Limburg Landschap (a nature organisation) and the IKL Foundation (an NGO for landscape management) by grazing with goats to maintain habitat for rare amphibians, such as the Yellow-bellied Toad. Eagle Owls have also recently colonised the site.

The effect of this decision was reviewed within RESTORE. The RSPB applied TESSA to measure the ecosystem services provided by the nature reserve and the alternative use, which would have been a recreational woodland. These data were then used by ILS (Institute for Regional and Urban Development) to carry out further economic valuation, which showed that despite the potential for the site to store more carbon as a woodland, over time this was outweighed by its value for recreation as a nature reserve.

The nature reserve has a higher aesthetic value because the steep slopes of the quarry are unusual, compared to traditional woodlands found all over Limburg. There was also a good understanding by people that the site was providing valuable habitat for wildlife.

The results from the RESTORE project have shown that conserving nature through rehabilitating disused mines is not just something to keep environmental NGOs happy. It can benefit local communities as well. TESSA has been an important tool in carrying out that work.

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