Pit lakes: a life after quarrying

This is actually an article that I wrote for The Rooter, the positive environmental news website that my sister and I set up a few years ago. Unfortunately, I soon found myself trying to run it on my own – something that proved to be far too much for a single person, and so was forced to abandon it. I’m now gathering all of the articles that I wrote and placing them on here.

Feel free to leave a comment. Do you have any pit lakes near you? How do you feel about them?


Growing up in Nottinghamshire’s Trent Valley, pit lakes have always been a part of our lives. Our brothers learned to fish in the Farndon Pits, always hoping to catch the elusive Mobi Pike. Fishing was never my favourite pastime, instead I preferred to spend my time exploring the paths around the area and enjoying the nature to be found. In the summer months we could see migrant birds such as chiffchaffs, whitethroats and willow warblers. In the winter it was wildfowl and grebes that entertained us as they dived for fish and insects. At the time we didn’t realise that the ponds we all so loved to visit were man-made.

The Farndon Pits are remnants of the many gravel pits to be found in the Trent Valley. At one time these were sites of industry, filled with machinery as sand and gravel was extracted for use in construction. The gravel found along the Trent is a quartzitic, high strength material that is often used in the manufacturing of concrete. Once the last of the gravel was removed, rather than simply leaving behind holes in the ground, the pits were flooded. This was a relatively easy task as most of the pits had needed to be pumped free of water while the work had been ongoing. Nowadays you’ll find a series of nature reserves all the way along the course of the River Trent where the pits have been turned into lakes.

There are two former gravel pit nature reserves in our local area that we still regularly visit. These are at Besthorpe and Whisby.

A pair of swans on a lake.
Mons Pool at Besthorpe Nature Reserve. Image by Louise Bunting.

Besthorpe Nature Reserve is still actually part of a major gravel extraction site, but you wouldn’t know it when walking around the lakes and watching the many species of wildlife that have made the area home. The site, which is managed by Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, lies on the Trent floodplain on the east bank of the River Trent, and it currently comprises of two areas, Mons Pool and Meering Marsh. These total around 68 hectares. A further 100 hectares will be transformed into wetland habitats once the extraction of gravel has been completed south of Mons Pool. This is expected to happen before 2021.

The nature reserve at Besthorpe is a popular place for local birdwatchers, with hides placed at a number of key points around the area. Mons Pool, with its large central island covered in hawthorn scrub and mature ash trees, is well known for its breeding cormorants and grey herons. Little egrets have also recently colonised the central island. In 2011 the reserve saw a period of habitat creation, with spoil from Meering Marsh being imported into Mons Pool to reprofile the western island. This created an area of shallows and low islands, turning an area of marginal habitat into a popular site for wading birds such as wood sandpiper, ruff and black-tailed godwit. Both reed and sedge warblers are also regularly spotted, as are kingfishers.

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As well as the areas of open water, the islands, reed beds, shingles and valuable wet grassland, there are also two wildflower meadows to be found on the southern part of the reserve. These are designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Plants such as Yorkshire fog, great burnet and pepper saxifrage all thrive in these meadows, while wildflowers such as common cudweed, kidney vetch and orchids can be found throughout. Sheep graze the meadows to maintain the diversity of wild flowers and grasses. During the summer months butterflies, including the Brown Argus, can be seen.

A view over one of the lakes at Whisby Nature Reserve. Image by Louise Bunting.

It’s not only in Nottinghamshire that you can find nature reserves created out of former quarry pits. Whisby Nature Reserve is situated in Lincolnshire – only five miles, in fact, from the heart of Lincoln. It’s managed by Lincolnshire Wildlife Trust and has two Trust Wardens permanently stationed there, plus a host of volunteers. With over six miles of footpaths that follow the old gravel pit paths around five lakes, this site provides visitors with lake views, woodland and meadows to explore. The majority of the paths are hard-topped, making them accessible for all levels of ability. There are more than thirty seating areas, plus seven bird hides, six of which are modified for wheelchair access. Each hide contains information about the wildlife that can be seen there at different times of year.

If you’re in the area, for only a small charge you could join the guided walk that takes place at 10.30am on the 2nd Sunday of each month from March through to October. During these walks the ‘wildlife of the day’ will be pointed out by your guide, including birds, plants, insects and anything else currently of interest. On other occasions, you’ll be left to explore on your own. Maps showing the trails around the reserve can be found at the Natural World Centre. The paths are all marked with coloured arrows to direct you along your chosen route. In addition to this, the Whisby Education Centre offers regular groups and activities aimed at young nature lovers, from tots to teenagers. For adults, there are two exhibitions about nature and sustainability that can be found in the Natural World Centre, along with a café and an eco-friendly shop.

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The nature reserve was established in 1985 and opened to the public in 1989. In 2002 it was designated a Local Nature Reserve. The moorland habitat, with wet willow scrub and, of course, the former gravel pit lakes, provides a perfect space for a variety of wildlife. Bird species such as Gleylags, chiffchaffs, wigeon, teal, tufted duck, pochard and goldeneye, great crested grebes, mallard and kingfisher can all been spotted, and it’s also home to Lincolnshire’s only breeding nightingale population. Not only the bird life is of interest. In November 2000 the Hazel Pot Beetle was released onto the reserve. This species in decline was one of the 83 beetle species included in the UK’s Biodiversity Plan, compiled 1995-1999, and Whisby was one of the first sites chosen for it’s reintroduction. 200 captive-bred larvae were released, all tagged with slivers of stainless steel so researchers could track the elusive creatures with metal detectors. By 2002 the first generation of adults bred in the wild had been found at Whisby.

As with Besthorpe, Whisby continues to be an active quarry site. Occasionally you can catch a glimpse of machinery through the trees. You might think that this would be loud and unpleasant, but we’ve never found it to be so. In fact, when visiting with a youngster with a fascination with machines, finding a place from which to view the quarry became as important as finding a place from which to view the wildlife!

A glimpse of the quarry through the trees at Whisby Nature Reserve. Image by Louise Bunting.

Whisby and Besthorpe, and all of the other pit lakes to be found across the UK, might once have been sites of industry, but now they’re havens for wildlife. They provide a home for a range of creatures whose habitats have been marginalised by modern agriculture and  urbanisation. It’s not just in the UK, however, that such land restoration after quarrying is occurring. The United States require companies to restore the land after mining. Spain is currently converting a former lignite pit into the country’s largest lake. One of the most ambitious projects currently in process, is the creation of the Lusatian Lake District in Germany.

Part of the Lusatian chain of lakes. By LMBV (Peter Radke) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

For the past two decades the Lusatia district of Germany has been involved in an environmental clean up effort after one hundred and fifty years of strip mining for lignite coal. The craters that were left behind after extraction have now been resculpted into twenty six lakes with beaches of golden sand, connected by thirteen canals and hundreds of miles of tracks for cycling and walking. The transformation is still ongoing. Once complete, the area will be both a haven for wildlife and a perfect place in which people can connect with the natural world, with all of the physical and mental benefits that entails.

Mining began in the area in 1844. By 1975 Germany had become the largest producer of coal in Europe. The Lusatian mines provided jobs for thousands of people, boosting an economy that had previously been incredibly poor. The effect on the environment, however, was not as positive. Lignite – also known as ‘brown coal’ – is usually found close to the surface. The easiest way to extract it is to remove layer after layer, from the surface down. By the time all of the mines were closed down after the reunification of Germany, the land was covered in scars. Both the air and the water was polluted. In order to deal with the situation the government created the Lausitz and Middle Germany Mining Administrative Company (LMBV).

You could say that it’s the biggest landscape reconstruction in Europe. There’s no script for this job.

Uwe Steinhuber, LMBV

Following the example of Lake Senftenberg, which was created 1967-72 after the decommissioning of the opencast lignite mine of Niemtsch, LMBV flooded the mines. They treated the water with limestone to remove the acidic pollutants introduced through the mining process. They replanted the forests, sold land for solar and wind farms, and encouraged agriculture in the area. Canals were dug and, as the acidity of the water reduced, fish made their way along them into the new lakes. The Lusatian Lake District is now the largest artificial lake district in Europe, with 25,000 hectares of lakes that have cost 10.6 billion euros to create.

It might not be pleasant to have a quarry near to where you live. It’s true that the mining process will destroy habitats, damage archaeology, and increase pollution, both from the mining process, and from the number of machines and trucks in operation. The long term affect on groundwater acidity can be a problem if a site is not managed properly. But as long as industry and construction require these holes to be dug in the ground, the least we can expect is a long term impact on the environment that is positive in nature, and pit lakes are definitely that.

If there’s a sand and gravel quarry in your area, why not find out what they plan to do after they’ve finished extraction. The chances are high that within a few years you too will have a beautiful nature reserve on your doorstep.

One Comment on “Pit lakes: a life after quarrying

  1. Both Whisby and Besthorpe are local sites for me, and I can only applaud the work done on both. Whisby is a popular destination for families as well as bird watchers, and the walks are a lovely way to spend some time, whatever time of year.

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