A Brief Survey of Dingy Skipper Colonies on Old Colliery Spoil Heaps in Yorkshire

Found to be then lost?

                   Country PK Dingy Blue                          Rother Valley PK

Above left: Rother Valley Country Park. May 24th 2003. Dingy Skipper and Blue Female of the Common Blue on an area of thin sward dipping down to an artificial lake, a legacy of pit pumping ponds

Above right: Rother Valley landscaping. The middle distance contains a reasonably sized Dingy Skipper colony

Below: Centre of the Dingy Skipper colony - an amazing site too - and the exact spot the new road is to be excavated to relieve peak time traffic congestion at the railway crossing east of Dodworth station. There is no reason why a bridge couldn't be built over the existing crossing even though more expensive. In any case such a solution would hardly dent the super profits both building & rail companies are making out of the Private Finance Initiative.


 One of the main environments for the Dingy Skipper in Yorkshire is undoubtedly the large spoil heaps of former collieries. These colonies have been in existence for a very long time and have only recently come to light because access to the former pit sites is generally no longer off-limits just so long as rights of ownership are waived temporarily. Moreover it would seem that the colonies have greatly increased in size over the last ten years ever since the wholesale pit closure programme instituted by the government in 1993. From the old spoil heaps the butterfly has spread onto the flat ground where the pit shafts, winding gear, colliery workshops and offices once stood. First and foremost we must remember that these discoveries are of significance as recently the Dingy Skipper has been put on the endangered species list. Collectively therefore we must make every possible effort to preserve these colonies.

Photo right: On top of the steep Dodworth colliery spoil heap west of Barnsley, South Yorks. May 25th 2003. A flourishing Dingy Skipper colony thrives among the yellow spread of Bird's Foot Trefoil. In the far distance is the TV mast of Holme Moss near Huddersfield. The base of Dodworth spoil heap supports an even bigger population of this fine butterfly. Holme Moss and Dingy
Photo right: May 26th 2003. A view from the railway bridge straddling the Old Retford Rd, Sheffield. On the far side of the railway is a small part of the huge Orgreave shale heap. Here Dingy Skippers occupy all carr woodland areas. On the near side of the railway across the river Rother lies a path to the Dingy Skipper colony at Woodhouse Mill. (Since this photo was taken developers have taken out  the distant carr woodland thus destroying the Dingy Skipper colonies). Orgreave

    One of the main environments for the Dingy Skipper in Yorkshire is undoubtedly the large spoil heaps of former collieries. These colonies have been in existence for a very long time and have only recently come to light because access to the former pit sites is generally no longer off-limits just so long as rights of ownership are waived temporarily. Moreover it would seem that the colonies have greatly increased in size over the last ten years ever since the wholesale pit closure programme instituted by the government in 1993. From the old spoil heaps the butterfly has spread onto the flat ground where the pit shafts, winding gear, colliery workshops and offices once stood. First and foremost we must remember that these discoveries are of significance as recently the Dingy Skipper has been put on the endangered species list. Collectively therefore we must make every possible effort to preserve these colonies.

   Throughout Yorkshire intermittent, scattered colonies of Dingy Skipper can be found in old quarries and in some specific areas like the Wolds where there is an abundance of its foodplant, the bird's foot trefoil and plenty of bare earth which the butterfly loves to bask on. However in South and West Yorkshire, they are found almost exclusively in and around the old collieries from where they hardly stray. It is probably fair to say that nearly all the former pits in South Yorkshire, even ones closed decades ago, contain Dingy Skipper colonies, some quite small while others are very large indeed with a hundred or so butterflies on the wing at any given time during the height of the flight period. Inexplicably, it seems this pattern does not apply to West Yorkshire where the butterfly's presence is very patchy and always in small numbers. From one year to the next sightings cannot be guaranteed. However, surprisingly two of the largest Dingy Skipper colonies numbering hundreds are to be found on the very fringes of West Yorkshire at Dodworth and, perhaps Wooley, north west of Barnsley. This cannot be accounted for by climatic factors as Dingy Skipper colonies are found much farther north in Co Durham and even north east Scotland. What then is the vital missing factor, if any?

   However, a word of caution. Most of this research was carried out in an inevitably sporadic fashion during the relatively bad weather of May 2002. Fine weather is essential if we are to absolutely sure about numbers and distribution. We would also suggest that the Dingy Skipper emerges much earlier in the former Yorkshire coalfield than in southern England. By the time the first male Common Blues have emerged it has probably peaked. The Dinnington Dingy Skipper colony near Rotherham was used as benchmark to gauge if venturing further afield was worth the effort. By June the 5th, 2003, only one very dished Dingy Skipper remained. This was a little heartening as the previous day, on the great wastes of Frickley colliery, at South Elmsall, West Yorks - covered literally with acres of trefoil - not one specimen was to be seen.

    The news throughout May 2003 had been very uplifting indeed finding many new Dingy Skipper colonies - often almost instantly - on disused colliery spoil heaps in the Rother Valley Country Park, Wales Wood, Orgreave in Sheffield, Woodhouse Mill, Dinnington, Thurcroft, Maltby, Edlington, Goldthorpe, Wath, Dodworth and Wooley. However let us not get carried away. Unfortunately all of these colonies are severely threatened by the recent rush to redevelop the former colliery grounds underwritten by low business rates. This allows Californian style prefabricated sometimes themed business parks and middle-income housing estates to spring up everywhere. The undeclared aim of this new urbanism is the elimination of all feeling for the areas' industrial past, apart from token emblems like pithead winding wheels cut into a semi-circle and dug into the ground at road junctions like a gibbet to remind people to forget. For no matter how drear these places once were in their heyday, the Lincolnshire border, home to the Lincolnshire Poacher and countryside teeming with wild life, were only a few miles away. In contrast there is now more wild life to be found on these abandoned industrial sites than in any number of acres of typical greenery in Lincolnshire. The former is now a green desert and the Lincolnshire Poacher a roadside brasserie. As in all areas of intensive agriculture, nature has become a broken reed, a mere representation lacking all substance. It has more to do with engineering than anything we have come to associate with the word 'nature' in the past. But this new urbanism, much of it stemming from a grassroots, almost naturist, reaction to the grande ensembles of the post war years, is nearly as threatening. These former mining villages are in close proximity to the economic hub of northern Europe not far across the sea to the east. The pressure to trample biodiversity underfoot as a fruitless waste of time is henceforth that bit more intense as the economy shifts from an Atlantic Britain to a European Britain.

Dodworth Roadway
May 24th 2003.  Distant shot of  former Dodworth Colliery (see above photo) situated alongside the Barnsley to Huddersfield railway. In the foreground there is a large Dingy Skipper colony. Note the half finished factory unit; a sign of things to come.  Remember across this glorious footpath is to be placed the road by-pass May 24th 2003. Part of the 'barren' ground of the former Thurcroft Colliery. Acres of bird's foot trefoil containing a dispersed Dingy Skipper colony are being landscaped out of existence. turn a 180 degrees about face and there is a new middle income housing estate. Outlook has become an essential part of the estate agents description which for sure does not include habitat suitable to the Dingy Skipper. 

   It is doubtful if these Dingy Skipper colonies are of recent origin. The butterfly is very sedentary as has been well documented by naturalists in the past. (c/f in particular Chris Thomas's researches on the precipitous clay undercliffs at Lyme Regis in Dorset). These Yorkshire colonies may go back centuries. On discovering a thriving Dingy Skipper population on the site of the former Waleswood colliery near Sheffield on May 24th, 2003 (which was closed in the late 1950s and is now the site of an Independent Retailing Park still advertising further potential storage space right in the heart of one of the Dingy Skipper enclaves), we were informed by a resident well up on local history that the high quality anthracite mined in the pit supplied the Crown castles and London palaces even in the 13th century! Thus from the very beginnings of colliery workings in medieval times and well before the advent of large scale industrialisation early in the 19th century and the subsequent insatiable demand for coal, bare mounds of shale from the primitive drift mines, bell pits and quarries would have been a common feature throughout South and West Yorkshire - precisely the environment where bird's foot trefoil flourishes and very welcome to the Dingy Skipper.

   Throughout the centuries the spoil heaps just got bigger and bigger, sometimes assuming vast proportions stretching for miles on end, a miniature range of man made hills. The oldest parts of the now vast spoil heaps gradually developed into sizeable areas of carr woodland covered in small birch trees, alders, dwarfish oaks even, beneath which mosses, sparse grass, plantains and other plants and flowers eventually grew: a habitat ideally suited to the Dingy Skipper. And for anyone bent on pinpointing these colonies more accurately and/or discovering new ones armed with the appropriate OS reference, we would advise you keep a sharp look out for this characteristic feature on the sides of spoil heaps and immediately head for it.

    All too often these areas have been invaded by dirt-tracking bikers drawn to the irregular terrain of these open spaces, which are tailor made for rough track riding. The incessant noise of these bikes and not least their increasing number, can be exceedingly irritating. However these seemingly anti-social machines and riders are actually assisting in the preservation of this butterfly by keeping the earth bare of vegetation on the bike tracks which criss-cross the terrain. If these bikers where ever to become aware of their beneficial ecological impact it could succeed, in this instance, in transforming their relationship between themselves and their machine to the mutual benefit of all of us. It's also a scenario not just restricted to Yorkshire. Once having entered North Notts and Derbyshire these old spoil heaps are a regular feature on the side of the M1 and trunk roads leading off the motorway. Indeed from what we know it would be surprising if there wasn't a sizeable Dingy Skipper colony existing at the huge Markham site just off the M1 in North Derbyshire or at Harworth south of Doncaster, Ollerton, Shireoaks, Clapwell, Bramley Drift, Annesley Woodhouse etc near Mansfield. There are of course many, many others.

    The real threat to these 'new' populations does not come from joy-riding, burnt-out cars, dirt track riders and the consequent noxious exhaust fumes but redevelopment, essentially from the project to regenerate South and West Yorkshire and which is now well underway. The old industry has been virtually vanquished and the identifiable buildings of a bygone era have given way to the ubiquitous box construction, flung up in a matter of days with a surround of manicured shrubbery and a tidy parking lot. It is often impossible to know from just looking at the outside if these buildings are for light hi-tech assembly, warehousing or laboratory work. They tend to be all but windowless, lit by artificial light during the day and at night. This stuff of nightmares may well have appeared first of all within the retailing sector, particularly in covered-in malls. This round the clock insulation from nature which is far more total than anything in the paleo/industrial era means we are more susceptible to the packaging of nature for we know no better.

    The development at Orgreave on the south eastern perimeter of Sheffield seems to be heading in this direction. Orgreave was the site of a huge coking plant as well as a colliery. Today most of the vast spoil heaps are now in the process of being levelled with huge heaps of topping soil easily visible from the M1 ready for the final overlay. The whole site, it seems, is to be transformed into a Cambridge-style science park together with affiliated industries situated right next to a potentially expanding Sheffield airport. Large billboards advertise an Advanced Manufacturing Park. Orgreave is also home to a large Dingy Skipper population though its actual size is very difficult to determine because the vast site has now been effectively cordoned off with rolls of razor wire.

    We have come to the conclusion that the colony on the huge Orgreave area is possibly made up of discrete enclaves and may possibly extend right into Catcliffe nature reserve formed out of the man-made hills overlooking Sheffield airport and little more than a stone's throw from the Meadowhall consumer emporium. However, on a hot day on the 8th of June 2003 no Dingy Skippers were to be seen though by then, if our familiar Dinnington colony is anything to go by, the season was over for this particular butterfly. It must always be remembered that proximity to an old spoil heap seems essential and Catcliffe does fit the bill even if it is a little distant. Don't though get too optimistic. Two weeks previously and drunk with recent success, a journey along the trefoil-rich railway embankment between Rotherham and the M1, Tinsley Viaduct, in Sheffield yielded absolutely nothing. The same was true for the huge derelict railway sidings at the base of the towering Sheffield Forgemasters plant. Abandoned former factory sites throughout Brightside were also totally barren.

   The Orgreave colony is still however very much in evidence from the Old Retford Rd end where long rides of carr woodland have slowly over the years crept up the steep spoil heaps, binding the shale together. Unfortunately, the bulldozers are now hovering over its steep bank sides. Surprisingly, given its sedentary habits the Dingy Skipper population has jumped over the River Rother and is now relatively abundant on the flatlands - now covered with birch, scrub and bird's foot trefoil - of the old marshalling yard of Woodhouse Mill. And that's our problem. Industrial dereliction increasingly gives way in an ever shorter space of time to development of the wrong sort like a typical middle income estate.

   These new housing estates are a summation of existing tendencies. They are not a root and branch 'solution' to the cities of the paleo/industrial era as were the Garden Cities and the New Towns. Nor can they exactly be described as a modern equivalent of urban sprawl and ribbon development. Rather than devour agricultural land they gobble up abandoned urban spaces. They are the new brownfield enclosures with a conception of nature that is not so much reduced - typical of the earlier reforming movements - as bordering on substitution. We are tempted to touch this sign of nature just to check if it is for real, in the same way as we do plants in malls and the foyers of building societies.

   The fact that gardening (pretty much the Garden Centre idea of gardening) is a multi-billion pound industry nowadays in no way contradicts this general tendency. Gardening has an unprecedented degree of snob appeal that emphasises expensive novelties at the cost of the commoner garden. In fact gardening has become an avant-gardening - an event, an installation, a gallery - a living aesthetic of counterfeit life that emphasises texture, form and colour like in a painting. Gardening is a generator of property values like never before. It also reflects the growing privatisation of nature and the decline of public space. Nature is ceasing to be a social arena whilst continuing to be a social category, capitulating ever further to the dominant values. It has become monetarised. (This was brought home to us when we tried to persuade a miner's widow to plant some thistles and nettles and to let the grass grow tall in her garden. Instead she opted for a croquet lawn. How far distant the mining community's impassioned relationship to nature all of a sudden seemed to be. And yet less than 150 yards away there was a small Dingy Skipper colony.)

   Most of these estates, advertised as prestigous housing development plots, are for middle income personnel, fresh to the locality and related to the economic needs of a recent hi-tech presence. The sales pitch of Estate Agents includes a 'pretty' outlook or the eventual promise of one as, yet again, the scars of Yorkshire's industrial past are suitably levelled and grassed over. This is already happening where Thurcroft colliery between Rotherham and Doncaster once stood. The lower spoil heaps are now covered with a lush yellow carpet of bird's foot trefoil and there is a thriving Dingy Skipper colony. However in parts the heap has been staked out for something more profitable and pleasing to an eye conditioned by a germ free conception of nature reinforced daily by everything from greeting cards to Emmerdale Farm. The new tenants just might realise something of this chocolate box fantasy but the Dingy Skipper will not be part of it. And if it was it would mean an entirely different approach to nature, house building, the family and life in general was evolving. Parts of Thurcroft appear to be opencast with large amounts of shale being shifted a considerable distance by an army of dumper trucks and deposited right on the top of old 19th century workings. This area over time has become a wonderful wildlife haven through which locals leisurely stroll through. It is sad to think looking up at the imposing, famous landmark of Laughton church steeple a little distance away, that the Dingy Skippers at ones feet are about to be exterminated.

   No doubt Thurcroft is just one amongst many. True the Dingy Skipper will move (rather than adapt) if its exacting habitat requirements are met. The old spoil heap at nearby Dinnington, South Yorks is a large and quite glorious space. However, its extremities - those farthest away from the old pit shaft itself - have been gentrified by a large swathe of typically exotic looking but utterly inappropriate vegetation. A kind of ring road now snakes around the spoil heap with a side road leading to the recently opened Safeway's superstore. Beneath the expanse of the end brick wall of the Superstore and across the road from the supermarket are two small colonies of Dingy Skipper. This happy occurrence is solely due to the failure or non-implementation of the synthetic planting regime. Amidst the bare earth is a refreshing variety of 'weeds' including fumitory. But any more righteous planting in the name of nature and these colonies, which are just to say clinging on, will disappear.

   At the other end of this particular spoil heap belonging to the former Dinnington colliery (there is another but it really does seem barren), Birse, a construction company, is already levelling the actual pit shaft area on which, it seems, a leisure complex is to be built. A relatively modest Dingy Skipper colony has already been wasted. But the heart of Dinnington's Dingy Skipper population can still be saved where it gives out into the grey, bare shale and where a disused railway line ran that once connected the two separate spoil heaps. A spontaneous nature reserve has already grown up in this enticing place and 40 or so Dingy Skippers can be seen on the wing during the flight period. Paths criss-cross the area and wooden seats are in place here and there - courtesy of Rotherham Council perhaps - especially on the summit which during summer is resplendent with a host of wild flowers and where an occasional Marble White (from nearby Little Stones?) has been seen to fly. Surely that totalising hi-tech urbanism which insists on its own insect-repellent shrubbery can be prevented from being imposed here ensuring the Dingy Skipper colony will survive' Time here is of the essence and one fears that the year 2003/4 maybe the last time the butterfly will be seen at Dinnington.

   This unplanned, informal nature reserve now established on a number of former colliery spoil heaps may be to our advantage and one we can use. Some of these areas have been sensitively seeded probably more through luck than good management. Maybe the former British Coal had a hand in it in tandem with Borough Councils' both anxious to cover up industrial blight as quickly as possible with a view to selling off the land to developers in the near future. For instance the private mining company, Budge, gave money towards the reclamation of Fairburn Ings. Whatever the case to find spoil heaps covered in a thick carpet of bird's foot trefoil and other plants like kidney vetch (which could not possibly have got there in such profusion by chance) is fairly commonplace. Thus Kiveton Park colliery now contains what must be one of the largest Common Blue populations in Britain numbering 10,000+ as well as a substantial Dingy Skipper colony with a 100 or so insects on the wing at any given time in mid to late May. They are now even to be found even on the flat ground where the pit head buildings used to stand. The pit baths have been claimed already by English Heritage and in its immediate surrounds the occasional Dingy Skipper can be seen. Interestingly by 2003, the Dingy Skipper has ventured forth to colonise the railway verges leading to Kiveton Bridge station. A mile or so farther down the track towards Sheffield the butterfly again can be seen by the railway side as it cuts through Rother Valley Country Park. In parenthesis, it would seem the butterfly occurs in quite a number of places in this park which was hewn out of colliery and industrial wasteland back in the 1970s' and on which many locals fear to tread because they know what's buried underneath. However, their number and location has yet to be determined.

   Much the same can be said of Dodworth just across the M1 from Barnsley. Here a very steep-sided spoil heap is host to a scattering of Dingy Skipper colonies, the most notable one stretching from Dodworth station almost to the M1 railway bridge. Narrow rides traverse this spoil heap and in some places there is a covering of sand courtesy of Barnsley Council perhaps? On the flat ground where the usual pit head structures once stood there is now a modern factory estate that is encroaching alarmingly on one of the more substantial Dingy Skipper colonies. We must somehow make sure this significant colony (significant because it may be a vital bridgehead into deeper West Yorks) is not destroyed.

   The most extreme example of this often antipodal contrast must surely go to the 'regeneration' of the Wath-On-Deane locality which a few years ago was designated as: "The largest area of dereliction in the UK". Gone are the old, vast heaped-up marshalling yards and in its place is a country park modelled more on the anodyne greenery of London's Regents park than the Rother Valley Park ever was. According to the Wakefield lepidopterist, Roy Bedford, a few years ago a small Dingy Skipper population was discovered here at Gypsy Marsh although the truth is butterflies exists in small colonies everywhere within the immediate vicinity of Wath. As the report by Howard Frost in the Argus for 2002 states: "Several new sites were discovered in VC63, especially in the Barnsley area at Barrow Slack and Carlton Marsh, where old colliery sites have been landscaped". The stark contrast between the moon-like landscape of the old Manvers Main colliery landscape set alongside the pristine white prefabricated units of the new Brookfields Park with its Call Centres and T-Mobile smart card business premises should be preserved if for no other reason than as a piece of urban surrealism. It is in any case unlikely to last for any length of time. The levelling creed of bulldozers will eventually prevail if not halted in their tracks.

   This brief sketch is only part of a broader picture. We could go on to describe in detail the Dingy Skipper at Maltby, Edlington, and Goldthorpe but they have to be other places as well. We would suggest looking at Chapeltown - near the Tankersley golf course - at Elsecar's railway sidings, at Lundwood near Barnsley, at Grimethorpe, Moorthorpe and the previously mentioned Frickley. Not forgetting the Mining Heritage Museum at Overton near Horbury, Emley Moor and even taking a glance at the old, now pretty well grassed over spoil heaps, of the former Dewsbury Moor pits closed in the late 1950s. Again, we would advise a deal of caution when dealing with likely areas in West Yorks. We visited Rothwell Colliery area on May 26th, 2003, which has been transformed into a 'Country Park', a reclamation project, sponsored by Leeds City Council, Groundwork, Action for the Environment and Millennium Project lottery money. Much of the park was liberally covered in bird's foot trefoil which extended right along the railway embankment into Leeds before spreading out onto the marvellous ad hoc nature reserve of Skelton Grange power station. This area is not only more biologically diverse than the planned for nature of Rothwell Park it is also far more exciting to walk through. It has an abandoned air about it and nature seems to revel in the unusual opportunities it is presented with. A marsh thistle was to be seen growing, amid a mini-Sahara of concrete, out of a sunken water pump that had not been properly capped. And Lapwings, a rare enough sight anyway, were nesting in these transmigrating industrial fields of unploughed rubble which formerly had once been the foundations of a Vickers armament factory. But look as hard as we may this perfect habitat did not yield one Dingy Skipper. And we were so certain we would find it there!

In the immediate future we must make every effort to track down more Dingy Skipper colonies because this butterfly is so patently under threat especially in South Yorkshire. Its future hangs in the balance and it is just as well the butterfly has emphatically announced its presence even though it is late in the day. The last act in this tragedy: The Dingy Skipper Vanishes need never be played.

Grayling Wath Goodsyard
Above Left: June 4th 2002. Mating Dingy Skippers on the outskirts of the Dinnington colliery site, near Rotherham, South Yorks. A year later on on the same date, the Dingy Skipper was all but finished for the season. As a result of global warming an earlier emergence may become the norm. Above Right: May 25th 2003. Wath-On-Dearne, South Yorks. Flat carr woodland covering the site of the former huge marshalling yards. Near the recently constructed Wath by-pass - and just outside the picture frame to the left - large billboards advertise the suitability of the land for redevelopment. A small Dingy Skipper colony has probably recently colonised this scrub.

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