It is unusual for a SSSI to be designated primarily for its invertebrates but that is what a group of volunteers and NGOs are trying to do at the Garnock Estuary. The estuary is situated just north of Irvine on the north Ayrshire coast where the rivers Ayr and Garnock meet. This is the largest estuary on the Clyde coast and part of its mudflats and saltmarshes are already a SSSI that also attracts large numbers of wintering wildfowl. However, the invertebrate assemblage (and in particular the beetles) found on the original sand dunes around the estuary are of undoubted Scottish importance. The Ardeer Action Group, consisting of local naturalists and NGOs including the Scottish Wildlife Trust, the RSPB, Buglife, Butterfly Conservation and Plantlife and with support from ColSoc, have submitted extensive documentation to NatureScot outlining the rationale for designating the site as a SSSI. There is no space here to go into all the details but an article in British Wildlife (Vol. 21(5): 332-340) gives a good summary.
In brief the land around the estuary was, in the middle of the 20th century, the site of the world’s largest explosives factory extending to almost 900ha and employing 15000 people. Originally founded by Alfred Nobel in 1870 to manufacture dynamite, it had later become part of ICI and its activities extended to paints, dyes and artificial fabrics. Changing circumstances led to the site becoming more run down until it effectively closed around 30 years ago although there is still some explosives manufacturing going on in a small part of the site. Currently this is classified as one of the largest brownfield sites in Scotland.
This may seem an unlikely start for a SSSI but because explosives manufacturing is an inherently dangerous activity most of the buildings were well separated from one another by embankments made of sand from the dunes and in low lying areas fire ponds were excavated creating open water and associated wetlands. The consequence is that, after 30+ years of benign neglect, we now have a unique mosaic of habitats ranging from the beach though dunes, fixed dune grassland, dune heath and slacks, woodland, open water, carr, swamp and fen. Much of this could be classed as Open Mosaic Habitat on Previously Developed Land (OMHPDL), a habitat now regarded as a priority habitat by Natural England but one which has largely been neglected by NatureScot.
It is clear from looking at the invertebrates found here that much of the original fauna has been retained and probably added to by the industrialisation of the site. This gives an unrivalled assemblage of invertebrates. For example, Steven Falk has said that it is the most important site in Scotland for aculeate Hymenoptera and it is also rich in Diptera and Lepidoptera. However, as a ColSoc supporter, the most interesting group here are obviously the beetles. To date, over 400 species have been recorded and the actual number is no doubt much higher once a full survey has been carried out and the coleopteran equivalent of ‘the little brown jobs’ have been dealt with.
The only RDB beetle to have been found so far is Chilothorax paykulli but there are numerous Nationally Rare and Scarce species plus apparent new records for Scotland including Harpalusneglectus, Meligethes atramentarius and M. planiusculus. The habitat diversity of the site is displayed by the range of species found – some examples of scarcer species are listed below.
The status of the area in planning terms is complex but there is some urgency for its biodiversity importance to be identified. Most of the former ICI land is owned by a development company that, for obvious reasons, wants a return on its investment. There are also active quarries currently extracting sand from the area and a planning application for a small wind farm has been lodged. Until very recently the area was also on the short list for a prototype fusion reactor but that will now be sited elsewhere.
Ideally there should have been much more comprehensive survey work carried out to fully evaluate the fauna and flora but the site owners do not want public access to the area and this has largely limited invertebrate recording to informal visits by local naturalists. The rationale for designation that has now been lodged with NatureScot will hopefully be treated sympathetically and would be the first brownfield SSSI in Scotland as well contributing to the target of 30 % of land managed for conservation by 2030 (30x30).
A response from NatureScot is expected early in 2023 so watch this space!