Brownfield Site - Russell J SmithBrownfield Site - Russell J Smith

What are they?

Wildlife is often more resilient than we give it credit for. It can thrive in the most unexpected places, including on industrial wastelands where old factories, housing, docks or power stations crumble, railway sidings and roadsides go to ruin, and the spoils of urban life, such as slag, coal spoil and fly ash, build up.

Open mosaic habitats on previously developed land may commonly be thought of as ‘wasteland’ or ‘brownfield’ sites, where urban development has been prevalent. The term wasteland has negative connotations, implying land of no environmental, social or economic value. But in terms of wildlife, these can be areas of great importance in the urban landscape.

This habitat comprises mosaics of bare ground with pioneer plants pushing their way through rough substrates, more established flower-rich grasslands, scrub, and patches of other habitats such as heathland, swamp, temporary pools and wet grasslands. 

Where are they found?

This habitat can exist on any brownfield site, and so, can be found anywhere in the UK – look around our large towns and cities, in particular, and you’ll see wildlife rising from the spoils of development.

Why are they important?

Whether colonised naturally or helped a little along the way, the diversity of species brownfield sites can support is surprising – nearly 15% of all nationally scarce insects are recorded from brownfield sites, for example. Not only that, but these areas, so often seen as derelict and useless, can form important corridors for wildlife, linking up other habitats.

The open character of previously developed land, with its disturbed soils and bare ground, makes it excellent for invertebrates and reptiles. Burrowing and ground-nesting invertebrates make their home here, while common lizards can be spotted basking in the sun and slow-worms shelter under old tin.

The low nutrient content of many brownfield sites results in higher plant diversity as fast-growing species are unable to get a hold. As a result, flower-rich grasslands grow up and provide hoverflies, bees and butterflies with nectar and pollen. Flowers like thistles, ragwort, fairy flax, common centaury and blue fleabane appear next to rarer orchids, such as fragrant, pyramidal and bee. In turn, garden tiger and cinnabar moths pepper the greying landscape with their bright red, orange and black markings.

Temporary pools support plants like horsetails, rushes and the sulphur-coloured yellow flag iris, and are used by common frogs, great crested newts and natterjack toads to live and breed in. Scrub habitats provide shelter and nesting opportunities for small mammals, such as voles, and birds, such as linnets.

Are they threatened?

These habitats are at risk of destruction and serious degradation from urban development, landfill, unsuitable reclamation and lack of appropriate management. Few previously developed sites have any legal protection and the creation of new sites is limited. 

How are The Wildlife Trusts helping?

Across the UK Wildlife Trusts are working with developers and planners to provide guidance on the management, creation and restoration of these unique habitats. We’re also involved in various projects to ensure these sites provide the best wildlife habitat they can; for example, the black redstart relishes life on brownfield sites so much that conservationists are looking to replace those sites that eventually get developed with similar habitats on nearby roofs!

What can I do to help?

• Take part in conservation measures on your land – ask The Wildlife Trusts for advice on managing brownfield sites sympathetically.
• Provide a little space for nature in your town – visit our Wild About Gardens website to find out how.
• Buy wildlife gardening products from Vine House Farm – 5% of takings go to your local Wildlife Trust.
• Support the work of The Wildlife Trusts across the UK and become a member of your local Trust or volunteer your time and skills.