Common blue butterfly sat on a yellow flower at brownfield site

Brownfield Biodiversity

Tiff Ki in warm clothes and wearing glasses

Brownfield sites? These are sites some might call ‘wasteland’, ‘post-industrial land’ or ‘derelict land’. These could be disused railway sidings, former quarries, abandoned industrial estates, amongst other things. Historically incredibly human-modified – one might wonder why, as a conservation scientist, I would be interested in brownfield sites.

Brownfield sites do actually harbour biodiversity. In fact, these sites might support many nationally rare and scarce insects in the UK. Some of these sites have environmental conditions that are very similar to natural habitats that are rare today. For example, former chalk quarries may share similar conditions to chalk grasslands. In this way, these sites might be able to support the communities that depend on these now rare habitats, acting as a refugia. These sites might also be able to provide high levels of ecosystem services, compared to other urban environments.

David Attenborough Building green roof in bloom showing Kings College in distance
David Attenborough Building, within which the Museum of Zoology sits, has an extensive ‘green roof’ supporting wildflowers and insects

But brownfield sites are most often prioritised for redevelopment, over more ‘pristine’ habitats. These sites are often much closer to urban areas and are better supported by existing infrastructure, making them easily suited to redevelopment with the growing trend towards urbanisation today. Thus, their value for biodiversity is often overlooked.

sandy earth pile surrounded by a barrier of vertical logs
‘Brownfield-like’ substrate aggregate mound, Bramblefields Local Nature Reserve, Cambridgeshire. (c) Victoria Smith

‘Brownfield-like’ habitat creation schemes have been proposed as a way to mitigate their loss – what these might entail? There have been different types of creation trialled – extensive green roofs, aggregate mounds, brownfield-inspired landscaping. However, the concept itself is still quite novel and requires more time for the evaluation of these habitat creations in their effectiveness at recreating ‘brownfield-like’ habitat creations.

sandy/gravel earth opening in trees
‘Brownfield-like’ substrate aggregate mound, Bramblefields Local Nature Reserve, Cambridgeshire (c) Victoria Smith

Since 2018, I’ve been working with Vic Smith (Cambridge City Council Ecologist) and Dr. Ed Turner (Insect Ecology Group) on an exciting project evaluating the effectiveness of a ‘brownfield-like’ habitat creation. Prior to its redevelopment to Cambridge North Rail Station, Chesterton Sidings was heavily overgrown brownfield land and harboured a wide range of species and also supported nationally scarce insects.

At the nearby Bramblefields Local Nature Reserve, Vic and the local group of conservation volunteers created a substrate aggregate mound, using reclaimed building supplies, to try to recreate a small brownfield-like habitat in 2018. I’ve been surveying this experimental plot, characterising the invertebrate and plant communities in and around the habitat creation.

blue butterfly on a yellow flower
Common Blue found on the mound (c) Tiffany Ki

It’s still early days to see how the habitat creation scheme fares in the long run but I’m currently finishing up with the analyses from the first two years, and hopefully I will be able to update you all with the results very soon! This quantitative evaluation will be incredibly useful to understand whether these types of creations are effective conservation interventions, to ensure the best use of the limited conservation resources.

My research is funded by the Varley-Gradwell Travelling Fellowship in Insect Ecology and the Balfour-Browne Trust Fund.


Click here to discover more from the Insect Ecology Group

Read The Lesser Known Ecological Parks of London by Ella Henry for more urban wildlife stories

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