A landscape that once formed an important part of the North East coal industry is the setting for a conservation project aimed at bringing communities closer to green spaces and wildlife. PETER BARRON reports

HALF a century has passed since the last shift clocked off at Elemore Colliery and emerged from the darkness into an uncertain future. Today, the landscape is very different.

The grey spoil heaps have been replaced by vibrant, green countryside, with woods alive with birdsong – and the future is about to get even brighter.

That’s because the 50th anniversary of the colliery closure coincides with the launch this month of a £2.1m initiative to help nature thrive on the site, along with 12 other green areas within the Coalfield Area of Sunderland.

It was February 1, 1974, when Elemore pit – a few miles from the County Durham border – closed for good, and it wasn’t until the 1990s that the 61-hectare site was reclaimed to make way for a golf course.

The course lasted until 2019, before being replaced in 2022 with a flagship eco-park –Elemore Country Park – which saw Sunderland City Council planting more trees and improving the infrastructure with new paths, play areas, and a ‘trim[1]trail’.

Now, an ambitious initiative, called Links with Nature, is ready to take the site to the next stage of its natural development.

Links with Nature is a partnership between Durham Wildlife Trust, Sunderland City Council, and the Wear Rivers Trust, working alongside people from local communities to boost wildlife habitats and improve access to countryside close to their homes.

Alongside Elemore, the initiative includes a network of sites that provide equally important greenspace for residents: Elemore Vale, Copt Hill, Herrington Burn at Shiney Row, Herrington Country Park, Flint Mill, Hazard Railway and Woodland, Hetton Bogs, Hetton Lyons Country Park, Hetton Park, Keir Hardie Park, Red Burn at Rainton Meadows, and Success Railway all have fascinating stories to tell.

It has been made possible by funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Sunderland City Council, North East Community Forest, and Northumbrian Water’s Bluespaces programme.

And, as she looks out of the café window across to the entrance to Elemore Country Park – with its acres of woods, grasslands, and lakes – Links with Nature Project Manager, Anne Gladwin, clearly can’t wait to get started.

“It’s so exciting to have reached this stage, knowing what a difference it will make to the area over the next two years,” she says. Anne, who’s lived in the North East for 25 years, has spent all her working life in nature conservation and the environmental sector, including the past eight years as grants officer with Durham Wildlife Trust.

She’s been involved with Links with Nature since 2019 when the first discussions about its potential took place before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold in March, 2020.

The idea came out of the Wear Catchment Partnership – a collaboration of organisations along the River Wear that looks for opportunities to improve water quality, and habitats around water courses.

All water courses in the Coalfield Area feed into Lumley Park Burn, which in turn feeds into the River Wear. But habitats and wildlife are in decline, and a key aim of the project is to involve local people in bringing about the improvements.

“These sites are embedded in local communities – they are close to where people live – so we want to break down any barriers that stop people connecting to nature,” explains Anne.

She is, therefore, appealing for volunteers to get involved in practical ways, with walks and other events being organised to encourage local people and groups to explore the green spaces, and to see how they can help make a difference.

There are all sorts of jobs to be done, including clearing invasive species like Himalayan balsam, which prevents native species from growing. “It’s very important to recognise the coalfield heritage because that’s what shaped the landscape,” says Anne. “But we also have to recognise that the area has a legacy of poor health from mining, so this is an opportunity for local people to play a part in changing that for the better.”

Elemore Country Park is rich in birdlife and is a particularly important site for the willow tit (pictured below), a species in decline elsewhere in the country. Other birds living in the park include barn owls, warblers, kestrels, sparrowhawks, swans, and ducks.

The Northern Echo:

It is also home to deer and small mammals, such as weasels, as well as butterflies and dragonflies. Local streams were once home to water voles (pictured below), and it is hoped that they will return if the right habitat is put in place with the help of volunteers.

The Northern Echo:

Another of the chosen sites, Hetton Lyons Country Park, is a particularly good location for bats, and the mission is to not only protect the wildlife that already exists but attract more.

Links with Nature will attract tourists as well as wildlife, while also creating environmental career opportunities. Anne will have a team of three environmental experts, supported by four conservation trainees learning practical land management skills.

As a nature conservation charity, Durham Wildlife Trust is supporting the international target to have 30 per cent of the land managed for nature, and this project is a timely example of that strategy.

Recommended reading:

Last Chance! Don't miss out on The Northern Echo's unbeatable flash sale. This is your final call to subscribe digitally for just £3 for 3 months or enjoy 30 per cent off an annual subscription. Embrace your community's news today. The offer ends today.

“Covid got in the way of us getting going, but now we’ve got the go-head from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to start, and that’s really exciting,” says Anne. “What’s important is that we take local people with us – that they want to play their part in it – because it’s their landscape, their heritage, and their future.”

Coal was formed from decaying plant matter, buried over millions of years, and provided a way of life for generations. Now, new natural habitats – woodlands, wetlands, and grasslands – are being nurtured to create a healthier future for the people of The Coalfields.

Life turns full circle.

  • To find out more about Links with Nature, or to be a volunteer, contact Project Manager Anne Gladwin at agladwin@durhamwt. co.uk