A Beginner's Guide To Land Restoration

by Jo Thomas


In the same style as the previous article on nature conservation, this is intended as a quick guide to what "land restoration" is and how it works. Because my experience is confined to the British Isles, this is going to be very UK-centric but some of these principles may apply elsewhere.

(Anybody who would like to extend my experience to other countries, please get in touch...)

What Is Land Restoration?

There are a couple of terms that come up in conjunction with "land restoration" and explaining them will help explain the term we're interested in.

Let's start with "Greenfield", which is basically any land that remains undeveloped. Or not extensively, anyway. "Brownfield" sites are sites that have been developed beyond agricultural, forestry or fishery usage. They are usually classed as ex-industrial but can include landfill sites, former mines and quarries as well as sites of former factories, office buildings, or housing estates that have fallen in to ruin.

The idea is that it is land that has been used in the past but is no longer in use. More specifically, it cannot be used for agriculture, fisheries or forestry. If it can it would be classed as a restored Brownfield site. Therefore, land restoration is the process of changing Brownfield to something like Greenfield.

(There is a similar term, "land reclamation", which is actually about making land that is naturally not usable suitable for "use" - and exactly what defines use in those circumstances is a bit of a mix. There may be another article in that at some point.)

In Planning Terms

The UK system of planning permissions is based on laws that emerged in the 1940s. Through this a condition of a “destructive” land use, such as quarrying and mining--that is, the access and use of mineral rights below the ground--requires an element of land restoration.

This amounts to "fill the hole in and do something about how it looks". In the years when landfill was not a dying industry, the filling in part was something of a no-brainer - we always had need of holes in the ground. As a result, I have a passing connection with this at work as the closed landfill sites I work on mostly have planning permissions that date back to about 1948-1951. These ex-quarries and a former colliery are supposed to be returned to agricultural quality, and either arable or grazing use.

The exact layout of these fields can be modified through the planning system, so most of my sites will eventually end up split into several land parcels with hedgerows and some woodland, but the key thing in all cases is the land's "usability". The topsoil must be finished in such a way that it is suitable for arable crop growing, whatever a future owner decides to do with it. Which partially ties in with the system of subsidies where a land must be under crop (including some woodlands) or grazed in order to make money.

However, buildings and infrastructure such as roads and railway are not subject to the same requirements - despite the fact that modern constructions are generally designed to have a forty-year life span. There are also Brownfield sites that pre-date the restoration requirements, or whose owning companies folded or sold the site on before restoration could be undertaken or completed.

The other thing to bear in mind in economic climates like present is this: where do the restoration soils come from? Unfortunately, there aren't secret soil-breeding farms scattered across the country.

In the main, any materials needed to fill holes, provide sub-soil and the structural part of the topsoil is done by crushing the inert materials from construction and demolition sites. The nutrient factor of the topsoil is usually provided by compost or organic material from a variety of sources, such as gardens, paper and cardboard, wastewater treatment and so on.

In other words, in a slow economy there isn't much restoration materials around. Therefore, holes aren’t filled in and Brownfield sites take longer to restore while buildings are not being built and/or replaced.

In Historic Terms

Land restoration may also refer to returning a piece of land to a previous use. This is not totally opposite to what has been described before but the mind-set historic restoration is usually a little different from that of industrial, required restoration.

What it generally means in historic terms is returning the land to a system of use or management in operation at a particular time. The easiest thing to consider here is a National Trust property, whose bricks and mortar will be restored to something resembling its most glorious. The land, too, will get the same treatment. The question is, when was a particular land parcel at its best?

What the restoration is depends on how well known a land parcel's history is known or what era is being recreated. Typical restorations are various types of garden on an estate, parkland (that may or may not be grazed by deer), hay meadows, and coppicing. In most instances, this will involve traditional timings of activity but not necessarily traditional tools. It's also not uncommon for some of these to be undertaken on very small parcels - woods and meadows within the larger landscape that are difficult to get to and farm in a more modern manner.

As already suggested, this is not necessarily mutually exclusive from typical planning requirements. There have been instances where new projects have been submitted for planning that have in-depth plans for a restoration to a particular historic point once the project is over. There's also the possibility of requesting a change to the planning permissions to encompass a return to historic land use and management rather than the original plan. In most cases, the difference to the planning authority is minor - aside from potentially putting the body applying for planning permission in a good light.

In Wildlife Terms

Again, land restoration with wildlife in mind is not mutually exclusive with any other form of restoration, although historically minded restoration is more likely to match up with local species. The wildlife of the British Isles has spent a lot of time learning to fit in with historical land-uses and certain species thrive when certain habitats--e.g. parkland, hay meadows, coppicing, certain types of garden--are encouraged.

However, there can be a conflict between wildlife in general and the actual processes of a project that needs planning permission. Life, as they say, is that thing that happens while you're making other plans. Alternatively, life is that thing that colonises your engineered surface while you look the other way for a few years.

As a result, completing the land restoration required by planning permission can ensure that some species find themselves homeless between one breeding season and the next as a project progresses. A couple of obvious examples are a couple of common bird species. We'll start with the northern lapwing.

The lapwing is a big fan of arable agriculture. It likes soil or short grass to nest in, creating a bit of a dip n the ground and laying its eggs where anyone can step on them. They do their best to prevent this by distracting people with flying displays and their weird cries. So, if any parcel of land is left as bare soil for a growing season, the chances are lapwing will nest on it. If topsoil needs to be put on before restoration is complete, it has to wait until the nesting season is over. The further bad news for the lapwing is, if the restoration plan involves more trees than grassland, they're going to lose the nesting site long-term.

Similarly, quarries of softer stones may find that stores of any fines material ends up colonised by sand martins, which more typically tunnel into sand dunes. However, those heaps of sandy material are not part of the long-term restoration plan, which means that neither are the sand martins. As with lapwing, sand martins have protection during the nesting season so won't get moved on while still resident. Once they migrate in winter, though, that heap is likely to be moved.

This happens with lots of species - plants, fungi, insects, birds, animals. It doesn't matter whether it's the untended part of an industrial site, a site where construction or demolition got paused, or a long abandoned site. A lot of the issue is that these sites are not manned or checked every day and the people who work there may not recognise a particular species or its importance. There is no real "grounds keeping" element to a lot of these industries unless there is a specific need for a manicured lawn.

Most companies now have surveys done for protected species before embarking on another phase of work on site but that doesn't change the fact that the colonisation is not something that can be planned and restoration plans take time to adjust. More precisely, the actual habitat that develops is unique to that given site and time, and the presence of individual species can't be predicted with any certainty. Unless a rare species is involved, and therefore legislation, many companies don’t bother to try adjusting planning permissions for changes in the colonising wildlife.

The irony is, of course, when the required restoration is to nature reserve level but for a different transitional habitat than the one nature was giving them during the project.

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