FORMER Green Party leader Natalie Bennett is due in the region today to meet protestors campaigning against plans for opencast mining.

Ms Bennett is expected to meet members of the Campaign to Protect Pont Valley and talk to local residents about the plan by County Durham-based The Banks Group to extract 500,000 tonnes of coal over three years on land formerly used for agriculture between Leadgate and Dipton.

Campaign group members organised a peaceful gathering on Saturday outside the Banks Group-run Bradley site and more than 100 people attended.

The fun day included a musical contribution by a young local singer, Anna Coulson, while some protestors wore newt masks and even onesie-style newt costumes.

Protestors said the newt masks were a reference to a claim that great crested newts may inhabit the area. Campaigner Anna Harris said one of the protected amphibians was recently found on the site.

The campaign group said it had several environmental and wildlife concerns about opencast mining in the valley.

Banks said it carried out a full environmental assessment, including surveys by independent ecologists, and no evidence was found of great crested newts.

Until recently, a number of the activists inhabited a camp outside the site entrance, off the A692, for several weeks until their eviction by bailiffs in an operation involving Durham Police and the county council.

Seven people were arrested for aggravated trespass during the two-day operation to clear the camp, while two further arrests were made on Thursday in a wave of renewed activity.

Ms Harris said of Saturday’s demonstration: “We’ve had glorious weather, some wonderful singing, and it’s nice to be joined by some local people, including a clergyman offering his support, who I have not seen in the time since we’ve been here.”

The Banks Group must begin opencasting by June 4.

Protestors have called on Defra to prevent the scheme proceeding and have planned another demonstration outside the site next Saturday.