Fairburn Ings – The biggest spoil heap in Europe?

I believe in life after death. Fairburn Ings, mid-summer, and atop 23million tonnes of spoil, the coal black flash of a lapwing wing coming in to land amid a festival of wild flower and butterfly colour. In the words of Steve Wadsworth, Fairburn born, ex- mining engineer turned environmentalist. “This area has gone from moonscape from landscape to habitat in less than ten years, how exciting could conservation be”.

The hills under my feet, where 7000 golden plover roost and 40 skylarks nest, were created not by volcanoes or glaciers but by men with a dumping truck day after day coming up from the mines a third of mile below us and depositing their waste. It was entered into the Guinness Book of records as the biggest spoil heap in Europe.

Almost seven hundred acres of lakes and marshes winter home to ten thousand black-headed and at least one black-necked grebe (I saw it) were to have been completely filled in by the National Coal Board with waste from mining. Instead the local naturalists RSPB fought to have it turned into a reserve. Here the highest number of bird species anywhere in inland Britain have been recorded and water vole and water rail frequent the reeds.


Humans have moved heaven and earth around Fairburn and back again. Between 300 and 150 million years ago the coal was made laid down under forested swamps which were periodically flooded by shallow tropical seas. The ancient ferns turned to coal and the bodies of dead shellfish to limestone. By the time William the Conqueror came to try to cross Brotherton Marsh in 1069, the climate had changed and the area was temperate marshland. Flooding delayed his passage. The marshes were extensively drained in the early 17th century to make way for farming, and in 1838 the first coal-miners were registered as living in the area.

Beneath Fairburn, runs a seam of coal 200kmsq in size, 500 meters down, from Dewsbury to Selby, which was mined over a hundred years to warm households and fire Britain’s industrial revolution. When coal mining was wound up here in a blaze of political fury and human anguish, the mines collapsed. Above ground, this caused a drop in ground level bringing the water table very close to the surface and creating the lakes on which now, the swans, like magnolia blooms display. So Fairburn came full circle from wetland to farmlands to coal tips to wetland again.

Although the earth has stopped moving around Fairburn Ings, industrial chemicals residues remain, which is why the tips are out of bound to visitors. Limestone too was mined and ferried along a canal now known as “the cut”, where kingfishers, aquamarine, dart among the willows weeping over the water.


I arrive at Fairburn after dark, where Simon Stennett, warden greets me with a veggy supper. Then he drags me reluctantly out to the pub. There is some dank quality to the air as we walk the silent streets to “The wagon and horses”. The pink exterioir of the pub on the street corner, hints weakly at the warmth to be found within. This is the first pub I have ever entered and got the feeling I was walking into the world where people are as lively and as happy as in beer commercials. The air is loud with the chat of locals, in suits and ties, football casuals or jeans. It is packed and everyone is smiling. Perhaps I have just been in the south too long. In the corner Karen and Chris gossip at a table crowded with people all of whom have played their part in bringing Fairburn back to life. Jason Higgins offers me a drink and as we sup, he tells me his story.

Jason is the third generation of family bird watchers. His father was a voluntary warden in the 1950’s, and his grandfather showed him his first hobby when he was ten. Jason has been made redundant from the chemical factory so he is helping out the reserve while he fixes up his life. Soon he’s off to Israel to census birds. Also there is Steven Wadsworth, who took up bird watching during the miners’ strike. Sitting beside me is Linda, wife of Charlie Wynn. She used to hang over the gate she was eight chatting to Charlie and his friends as they watched the swallows feeding over the Ings. They remember a roost of a million swallows settling into the reeds.

Middle English (1483) Ing: A common name in the north of England and in some parts for a meadow especially one by the side of a river and more or less swampy and subject to inundation. Oxford English Dictionary

The local ale, Sam Smith’s, is 4.1 percent and I sleep soundly till 6 am when Simon insists we get up to enjoy Fairburn at her best. Through a haze of meadow sweet comes the clicking of grasshopper warblers and the schizophrenic rattle and buzz of sedge warblers. Past the brand new visitor centre, through a wooded, wooden walkway Simon leads me, up onto “the tips” till the whole Ings lies at our feet. In the early morning, mists roll down the hillside, not as in Bronte’s Jane Eyre, “as chill as death” but soft and mild. From there we walk rapidly around the reserve taking in marsh and woodland, and grassland and canal and river; cow and hare and rushes and bee orchid and Med gull and….not for a moment does he stop enthusing about Fairburn. Every single superlative invented comes from his mouth to describe the beauty before us, the mud beneath our feet: brilliant, amazing, fabulous, Simon is in love with Fairburn, and it deserves his attentions.

Throughout our walking, I keep my dogs firmly on leads. Louis, the young one, plays tug of war with me and my arm aches. Any temptation to let him off is eliminated by a sudden jolt, which tautens the chain and the rigid body of my dog in the direction of a young hare. Eyes wide, the leverets muscles twitch to fly across the intervening space to cover, but he waits to see which way we go. Here in Fairburn he and all the wildlife should be safe from dogs, and guns and ploughs and cars.

Above a lagoon, on the top of the tips, a common tern adjusts each minute muscle to steady herself in the air. She dives and catches a fish, but before she is back to hovering height the fish falls. Faster than gravity she pitches down to grab the twisting silver form and swallows it. The fish arrived here as eggs on the feet of waders and gulls and have taken up residence. The were coal washing lagoons formed on top of the spoil heaps and any life here has arrived of its own accord after the industry had subsided.

Simon refers to “urban fringe” but to the Londoner in me, Fairburn seems as much like urban fringe as the Garden of Eden. It is true that beyond the last lake, in a valley, in a misty haze of pollen and water vapour, a chemical factory stands like a castle from Narnia or The Fifth Element. Even Ferry Bridge power station has a romantic quality seen through the yellow gorse. Ever present also from the eastern end of the reserve is the hum of the A1, but beyond the visitor centre to the west, the loudest sound might be a pair of squabbling skylarks, or the shrill scream of a swift chased by a hobby. Twelve miles from Leeds, and five from Castleford, the reserve is certainly not that far from the madding crowd. We visit the village for mushy peas and chips which warm the cockles of my heart, close to heartburn after the early start. After lunch, I volunteer, with Karen and the team down on the grassland.

Lowland wet grassland: …including grazing marshes, normally occur in river valleys…Aims: Re-establish nationally important assemblages of plants, breeding wading birds and nationally important concentrations of wintering waterfowl, Restore lowland wet grassland from …drier land over the next five years…..Biodiversity Challenge second edition.

The day I was at Fairburn the biodiversity challenge was being met by digging. On the back of a trailer attached to a tractor I meet volunteers Paul, Brian, Stewart. Karen Sutcliffe, assistant warden, is driving and we are all equipped with steel-toe boots and thick rubber gloves. Over the bumpy ground we get the luxury of this lift. On route I also meet what Simon refers to as “the management team” – a herd of 20 mixed breed bullocks. They make the ground structured to accommodate different waders and waterfowl: tussocks for breeding redshank, short for nesting lapwing, shaven for grazing widgeon. A curlew calls every so its clotted-cream territorial call.

The team of five make light work of digging holes for four posts and attaching the bars to ensure the cattle do not wander into the areas beyond where next season, naïve, young snipe may well be running about on gangley legs. This corner of the reserve mimics a traditional hay meadow management scheme which, till recently, preserved a wide biodiversity on much of Britain’s agricultural land. I prove myself to be worthy of a cup of tea by hanging on the edge of the newly built fence and hammering in the ultimate nail, my bottom inches from the water.


Before the day is over I take a walk in the far end of the reserve, where I am told the “real birders” go, and find myself in deep water. On either side of me the path dissolves into reflecting pools of “New Flash”. Garganey, little grebe, tufted duck and pochard all protectively fuss around their broods of youngsters. To my left the bony branches of a drowned tree bear cormorants like weeds hung on antlers, or figs on a shrivelled drought vine. The subsidence happened here practically over night in places – one day there was a field, the next, a lake and living trees were drowned. New flash is so named for being just that – New.

From atop the slag heap, the lapwing can see the green fringing of trees and the blue surface of the Ings. Deserving its name. Wet again after centuries of change. The visitor centre is bustling in mid summer and all the hides conceal eyes gazing out at fair Fairburn. Far below twenty school children buzz around on a wooden platform beside the pond, taking it in impatient turns to sweep their net through the water and delight in the newts or waterboatmen they have caught. Further down still, the coal mining tunnels have sunk into themselves and the planet’s innards are empty of men and silent. Above a skylark stakes its claim in the land.