The last half a year has seen the RiverLife team start to move upstream of the river Almond, this was really due to finding a willing and eager audience for events in Whitburn and with the particularly enthusiastic Fraser, who runs Pottishaw Fishery, spurring us on.
Adventures out that way have some pretty interesting sites, though I wonder if interest in industrial heritage and land restoration are what cause me to find it interesting. I visited some of the ponds that store the ‘ferruginous’ (high dissolved iron content) groundwater discharged from the mine shafts of the old Polkemmet mine- which is then evaporated in giant orange pools peppered with Herring gulls. This treatment works is repeated in various places along the Almond, though this is the biggest operation, with others using reed bed systems. The rest of the site looks excellent for budding geologists with some great bits of rock lying about, good mountain biking and those who enjoy some wild flowers. Sites that have little soil development due to spoil being brought to the surface can create some unusual growing conditions, such as high metal content or extreme pH. Looking through the photos I took of my visits there I found a stressed looking Little Hop Clover, a ‘pioneer’ plant that is often the first to set up a home in a new space, especially those homes that have little nutrients as these plants can fix their own nitrogen via a symbiotic relationship with Rhizobia bacteria.
On the other side of the old Polkemmet site there’s a new cycle and walkway between Longridge and Fauldhouse, the land on the northside is a mixture of heather muir, old peat cutting works, some pine plantations and a random very round pond. We clearly weren’t the first to have discovered the site, with a flock of geese coming into land on the pond shortly after we arrived. It’s pretty wild up there, being a plateau, it feels like you’re in some sort of natural grasslands somewhere. I can’t help but wonder if left for longer with little or no intervention what it would become with the passing of time? This type of restoration, where there’s little or no formal restoration is called ‘laissez-faire’ and it doesn’t always create what you expect. I would be willing to guess though that if we were to fast forward 150 years that it would be a mixture of birch and pine woodland, with patches of grassland where the water table doesn’t permit trees to grow. The grass was alive with small, fast and little brown birds (I’m not a good bird identifier), crickets and many species of spiders. Back out on the cycle path, the verge was filled with dog rose, great rose bay willow herb, vetch and lesser trefoil (or little hop clover). Within these wild flowering species, it was just humming with invertebrates; I counted 6+ species of hoverfly, 7 spot burnett, some great caterpillars, 5+ species of spider and a favourite of mine, the bumble bee hoverfly (is it a bee? is it a fly? No, it’s a bumble bee hover-fly!).
One of the other areas I’ve explored and been shown around, by an eager young volunteer, is the White burn, which Whitburn is named after, one assumes. Its confluence with the Almond is very distinct with the clear White burn and the murky brown of the Almond. It has areas of lovely natural seeming stream bed, where its course appears to have been allowed to move as it has seen fit. Walking around these areas you can pick out signs of the past land use, an embankment here, leading to a large hardwood post and the remains of a rail track sunk in the burn. Or, a line of semi and mature Beech trees that tell you this was a former land boundary. Some areas have good whin-dust paths, while other parts you follow well-worn desire lines and apparent lines of trodden grass. It’s well worth a walk around, or if you’re into the history of the land use keep an eye out for Alison’s next guided walk in the area. The White burn does meet many roads and is culverted through these, meaning that it may make precarious habitat for mammals such as otters that may well want to follow the burn to some new territory for hunting.
The science team will be doing a bit electro-fishing in this area in the coming weeks, so we’ll share what they find below the water surface up there.