North Shields: brownfield bliss

I’ll admit it, I have a strange fascinating with brownfield sites. Not just because some of these places – spoil heaps, forgotten corners and abandoned urban land – often have an interesting back story, but because wildlife often thrives on these forsaken spaces. Indeed, whereas today it is possible to walk for miles in areas typically thought of as wild (our sheep-grazed uplands ring a bell) and see very little, on brownfield, it is often impressive just what you can find crammed into a relatively small space.

With this in mind, and having spotted an intriguing splodge of green while perusing Google Maps, last weekend saw using heading to urban North Shields to investigate the brownfield land surrounding Royal Quays Outlet Centre.

En route to our chosen destination, a short detour through the carpark of a now abdanoned retail unit brought the first sightings of the day. Here, on a small patch of rough grassland seemingly left to its own devices, the tall, purple blooms of Northern Marsh Orchid were spotted from some distance away. Closer inspection revealing dozens of these charasmatic plants, just coming into bloom. Here too, Common Blue butterflies were seen and a single Small Heath (my first of the year) rested breifly atop a patch of Bird’s-foot Trefoil. Best of all here, a single Dingy Skipper was spotted and as ever, proved difficult to pin down at first.

In the North East, and particularly around Newcastle and North Tyneside, the Dingy Skipper is a species strongly associated with brownfield sites where its foodplant, Bird’s-foot Trefoil, often grows in abundance. It remains a rare butterfly locally, as well as local conservation priority species, and it is always worth submitting a record to ERIC North East if you encounter one.

Moving on, we soon arrived at our destination and set about admiring the vegatation adorning the overgrown rubble heaps by the site entrance. Bristly Oxtongue, with its wonderfully spikey foliage, was an interesting find here, as were Salad Burnet and Wild Mignonette. Colonists included Green Alkanet and Red Valarian, were also seen, while a queer looking plant with attractive, frothy flowers turned out to be Hoary Cress, a new one for me.

Still somewhat lethargic from the night before, a number of interesting bees were quickly spotted. Warming themselves on the leaves of Broad-leaved Dock, Chocolate Mining Bees were seen and nearby, a striking black and yellow nomad bee was revealed (unsurprisingly) to be Marsham’s Nomad Bee, a cuckoo of the former species. A leafcutter bee, likely Patchwork Leafcutter, whizzed past breifly and a few Early Mining Bees were observed. Bumblebees noticed included Common Carder, White-tailed and Early, and our first Orange-tip butterflies of the visit put in an appearance.

Rounding a bend and emerging into an open area close to the existing water treatment plant, we were greeted by an impressive display of wildflowers. Here, great drifts of Ox-eye Daisy and Meadow Buttercup caught the eye first, interspersed with Lesser Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Common Knapweed and other common species. The rich, blue flowers of Columbine stood out like a sore thumb and a conspicuous flame-red plant drew our attention. Clearly a spurge of some kind, it’s identity remained a mystery until our return home with the ever helpful botanists of Twitter revealing it to be Griffith’s Spurge, a garden escape.

Here too, many more Northern Marsh Orchids were seen, an a closer look at what seemed to be a newly formed pond revealed Water Horsetail, Common Spike-rush and Pendulous Sedge. Among other plants, Yellow-rattle was obvious on the margins here and insects included Common Blue, Large Red Damselfly and another Dingy Skipper. The first of several seen from this point in.

Further in, we encountered another small pond, forming this time on the concrete foundations of what was likely a former building. Here, Lesser Spearwort was an interesting find among other aquatic species but really, most of our time here was spent marveling at the wider picture of succession in action, with nature gradually reclaiming many of the remaining human relics on site.

Soon enough, it came time to leave – this was only meant to be a fleeting visit. Whilst an abundance of life was encountered over what was a relatively short, one and a half hour visit, I suspect we are only scratching the surface of what could be found here.

The nature of places such as this is often ethemeral, and if word is to be believed, this particular site could soon be developed. A shame, really, but not unexpected. I suspect that to many, its loss would be preferble to development elsewhere on land thought of as more typically green.

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