Darkest Before The Dawn?

Back in November of last year I wrote about the travesty that was the UK government’s white paper ‘Natural Choice’ that completely omitted geology from the natural world. Whilst lapses regarding the abiotic component of nature are unfortunately far from uncommon, removing (and it was in an earlier draft) geology, geodiversity and geoconservation from the document was an act of stunning ignorance by the mandarins in Whitehall.

Anyway, perhaps it is darkest before the dawn. Perhaps even, some of the shouting that the geoconservation community engaged in was to of good effect. The government has now published its long awaited revision of planning guidelines – National Planning Policy Framework (for England). The was a lot of concern about this document as the government had pre-announced that it wanted to rationalise the existing thousand pages of planning regulations to around fifty (actually it is 47 plus appendices). There was a worry that it would be heavily revised in favour of developers and to the detriment of the environment.

In the end, after some useful revision of the draft, it is much better for geoconservation than has expected. Although the original planning document relevant to geoconservation “PPS 9: Biodiversity and Geological Conservation” is superseded by the new Framework, the guidance is retained, as is the 2006 “Local Sites – Guidance on their Identification and Management”. This is extremely encouraging and goes a long way to addressing the omission of geoconservation from “Natural Choice” as it restates the importance of Local Geological / Geomorphological Sites (LoGS) in the planning process.

Specifically the NPPF states that …

The planning system should contribute to and enhance the natural and local environment by:
… protecting and enhancing valued landscapes, geological conservation interests and soils (11/109)

Local planning authorities should set criteria based policies against which proposals for any development on or affecting protected wildlife or geodiversity sites or landscape areas will be judged. Distinctions should be made between the hierarchy of international, national and locally designated sites, so that protection is commensurate with their status. (11/113)

To minimise impacts on biodiversity and geodiversity, planning policies should:
… aim to prevent harm to geological conservation interests. (11/117)

All of which is quite encouraging.

Now, dear government, about geology not being designated as a “strategically important” subject when successive governments have abused North Sea oil revenues for their nefarious purposes for the last forty years …


I have been out the last couple of days undertaking fieldwork for a building stones project, but today I was treated to a glimpse of a gem of a little geological section being prepared. Those of us who work in geoconservation talk a lot about geodiversity but this must be the most geodiverse section I have come across. It is a trench, only about 100m long but displays rocks from the Precambrian, Cambrian, Silurian, Carboniferous and Triassic.

The trench runs across the crest of the ‘Malvern Axis’, a major monoclinal fold trending north-south through central England that brings up Precambrian (~677 Ma; Cryogenian) to the surface. The Malvern line separates the two Precambrian terranes of the Midlands Microcraton, Wrekin Terrane to the west and Charnian Terrane to the east, that forms the solid basement of England. These Precambrian igneous rocks are unconformably overlain by Middle Cambrian Malvern Quartzite, and then Upper Silurian (Pridoli) Raglan Mudstone, and Upper Carboniferous (Moscovian) Halesowen Fm. This sequence was folded and thrust during the Variscan Orogeny at the end of the Carboniferous into the north-south Malvern Axis. Extension during the Triassic produced normal faulting along the Malvern Line and deposition of Middle Triassic (Anisian) Bromsgrove Sandstone to the east in the Worcester Graben. All this is being exposed in just one 100m trench, albeit somewhat tectonically shortened.

Standing on the axis, this is the view to the east. In the trench, the light coloured material in the foreground is Precambrian Malvern Complex, succeeded by grey/green and grey Carboniferous, red Silurian muds and Triassic sands towards the car.

To the west, the white is Cambrian followed by Carboniferous and Silurian on the other side of the axis. Note that many of the lithological identifications are still tentative.

The section is still in the process of being created and is on private land, but should be stunning when finished.

Dark Days For British Geoconservation

These are some troubling times in British Geoconservation with several geoconservation sites around the country coming under attack from various sources.

First, let’s start close to home at Park Hall, Staffordshire.

[image: Kidderminster Fm, Park Hall, Staffordshire. source: Ian G. Stimpson]

Park Hall is a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and National Nature Reserve (NNR) for its geology (Lower Triassic Kidderminster Formation [formerly known as the Bunter Pebble Beds]) exposed in former aggregate quarries. Situated on the edge of Stoke-on-Trent its Visitor Centre hosted visits from school children to study the local geology and biology. The GeoconservationUK Education Project [Earth Science On-Site] uses former aggregates sites like Park Hall to develop examples of high quality Earth Science field teaching activities for schools. Education for primary school students in Stoke-on-Trent is some of the worst in the country. It is hard to get schools to get the children outdoors and studying their natural environment but Park Hall Visitor Centre was a success. Instead of the centre having to chase the schools, the schools contacted the centre. Many had repeat visits booked annually in their diaries. Then on the night of November 6 thoughtless vandals broke into the centre, set a fire and razed it to the ground. The conflagration took with it tens of thousands of pounds worth of education materials for the school children of Stoke-on-Trent and the wider area.

[image: Demolition work at the Park Hall vistor centre after the fire. source: John Reynolds]

Other display material was lost including examples of local Carboniferous Coal Measure plant fossils had been lost in the blaze. It is the shear mindless thuggery of it all that saddens me. They also targeted a saddlery and several horses could easily have died.

Attempts are now under way to try to persuade Stoke-on-Trent City Council to rebuild the centre and have geology teaching as a showcase part of the new centre. However, in these straitened times it is always possible that this will prove impossible.

Another Earth Science On-Site location on the Kidderminster Formation has also been targeted by vandals. Barr Beacon, Walsall has had its war memorial roof stripped of copper by metal thieves. Whilst not affecting the geology of the site, including the Staffordshire Tixall Stone used for the memorial steps, this is still sickening.

[image: Barr Beacon War Memorial targeted by metal thieves : source Express and Star]

From England to Scotland where they have been having their own problems. On the beautiful Isle of Skye, perhaps more famous for its igneous rocks than its sedimentary ones, there are exposures of fossiliferous Jurassic rocks that have yielded the only Scottish dinosaur remains. Bearreraig Bay, north of Portree, is another SSSI, where any collecting is limited to that for scientific use, and that by permission only. Those convicted for either damaging a SSSI or collecting without permission can be subject to an unlimited fine. The section appears to have been attacked with a crowbar with several tonnes of rock moved in an attempt to extract fossils and dinosaur footprints may also have been removed from Valtos.

[image: Damaged fossils at Bearreraig Bay. source: Scottish Natural Heritage / BBC]

It would appear that the recession is driving a minority to increasing levels of theft, be it metals or fossil material. Another sign of the recession is the loss of UNESCO Geopark status by the Lochaber Geopark. UNESCO require that a permanent project officer be employed. It has been increasingly difficult to obtain funds for geoconservation funding. Where I am in Staffordshire all regular sources of funding have dried up (or appropriated by the national government), so it is little surprise that the volunteers in Scotland have struggled to raise the money for a salaried member of staff. This is the real Big Society, volunteers working for the good of the community and it is failing through lack of proper funding and support.

The Lochaber Geopark includes Glen Roy with its famous “parallel roads”, the shorelines of glacially dammed lakes. Charles Darwin visited Glen Roy in 1838 and described it as “far the most remarkable area I ever examined.” Darwin, however, was a much better geologist than a glaciologist, and ascribed the roads to marine effects.

The general mood in British geoconservation is on a downer. Funding has largely dried up and the government’s new planning laws appear to be ignoring any special consideration of local geodiversity or biodiversity sites. And, to top it all, the government has issued a new White Paper, the first such on the natural environment in over twenty years, called Natural Choice. It fails to mention ‘geology, geoconservation or geodiversity’ anywhere in the document. Here is their definition of ‘natural environment’

“In this White Paper, we have given ‘natural environment’ a broad meaning [sic]. wildlife, rivers and streams, lakes and seas, urban green space and open countryside, forests and farmed land. It includes the fundamentals of human survival: our food, fuel, air and water, together with the natural systems that cycle our water, clean out pollutants, produce healthy soil, protect us from floods and regulate our climate. And it embraces our landscapes and our natural heritage, the many types of contact we have with nature in both town and country.”

The definition simply isn’t broad enough. Perhaps they should have used Wikipedia

“The natural environment encompasses all living and non-living things”.

The lack of mention of geodiversity means that councils are already cutting back on their geoconservation work as they say that it isn’t now covered by government thinking.

At the moment those of us who work in geoconservation are feeling unloved, underfunded and under attack. Dark days indeed.

Extreme Gardening IV

Crinoid Fragments

Time to catch up on some blogging. For a start, I’ll go back to March 12, when myself and a group of volunteers from GeoConservation Staffordshire restored the exposure of the Milldale Limestone at Sparrowlee Cutting on the Hamps and Manifold Geotrail.

Before geoconservation
Before geoconservation
After geoconservation
After geoconservation

The restored cutting revealed a small thrust fault (climbing upwards to the right from the rucksack – above) and a localised pocket of crinoid debris (below) in the Milldale Limestone that probably haven’t seen the light of day since the Manifold Valley Railway was active in the in 1920s.

Crinoid Fragments
Crinoid Fragments
Location Map
Sparrowlee cutting, stop 28.

Major Setback For UK Geo- and Bioconservation

In amongst all the turmoil of the cuts being announced (and I don’t wish to demean anyone whose career is on the line over this) but a small change that has gone largely unnoticed is going to have a devastating effect on geoconservation and bioconservation work in the UK.

A large proportion of this kind of work has been funded from the Aggregates Levy Fund. This is a tax placed on quarries extracting aggregates and was designed so the funds raised could be put back into the communities that are affected by the noise, dust and traffic generated by these quarries. This has allowed geological and wildlife groups to conserve local sites and produce management plans to enhance and promote them. The group that I am now leading, Geoconservation Staffordshire (formerly Staffordshire RIGS) has used the money to produce three geotrails that promote geotourism in the affected areas and bring in visitors to help support the local economies. The UK government has quietly changed the rules in that the Levy remains but they are going to keep all the money!

This means that much geoconservation and bioconservation work will stop or be severely curtailed. We have so much work to do. This is a SSSI (site of special scientific interest) in Staffordshire. It is hugely important to Quaternary Geology. It is a type section for the Devensian in the UK. It is completely overgrown.

Four Ashes

It is now going to be very difficult to conserve sites like this and much of our geological heritage could get lost. The appropriation of the Aggregates Levy Fund for a purpose for which it was not originally intended is also going to hit bioconservation hard as well.

Four Ashes Section

The section here is interpreted as Late Devensian Irish Sea glacial till overlying Middle Devensian fluvioglacial sands. Fortunately for this site, money has been obtained from other sources to conserve this section (and we had permission to expose a small section of it here), but as I mentioned, this is a classic site. Other sites will not be as fortunate.