Bowers Marsh landscape

This place used to be a dump: transforming landfill sites into wildlife habitats

Image credit: Roy Rookes

Landfill sites in Essex are slowly being transformed into a fertile wildlife habitat that is rejuvenating a much-maligned landscape.

Trains on the Shoeburyness to Fenchurch Street railway line in the English county of Essex pass numerous grassy hillocks set amidst the flat estuary landscape. These are not Iron Age forts or geological features but mountains of municipal, commercial and household refuse capped off with a clay ‘pie crust’ and grassed over to disguise their unseemly past.

Inside these mounds, the remains of bombed buildings cleared away from London after the Second World War lie among more recent accumulations of detritus. As poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts wrote when describing a decommissioned landfill site in their 2011 book ‘Edgelands’: “Deep down, at the lowest levels, lie the peelings and scrapings of teatimes when Clement Attlee was Prime Minister. Vast colonies of microorganisms are busy at work in the dark.” 

Essex has for decades been a place where London went to wash its hands of its trash. Until fairly recently, an archetypal example of this could be found at a site going by an appropriately disgusting-sounding name, Mucking (the name derives from a Saxon chieftain, ‘Mucca’). It gained notoriety as one of the largest waste disposal facilities of its kind anywhere in western Europe, but there is now scarcely a hint of this history. The site has blossomed into a verdant nature reserve, visitors to which have included Sir David Attenborough.

Five years ago, as part of a £3m project aimed at reviving the ecology of the Thames estuary, landscape engineers – working in conjunction with London Gateway container port operator DP World and the Cory Environmental Trust – finally put a lid on tens of millions of tonnes of rubbish that had been spread across the Mucking marshes after being transported there by barge from the UK capital.

The site is now run by Essex Wildlife Trust as Thurrock Thameside Nature Park, and it boasts riverine vistas and a cheerful café (insiders in the wildlife conservation business say the trinity of “views, brews and loos” is key to a good nature reserve) as well as a visitors’ centre that uses hydraulic jacks to cope with the settlement of rubbish beneath it.

Ditches drain off leachate – the oozings from the decomposing rubbish – and methane gas is siphoned off from rotting foodstuffs and burned to generate electricity for the grid. Ponies are periodically introduced to graze the landscape, which is regarded as so scenic that the BBC’s ‘Countryfile’ programme has even filmed segments here.

A short sail downriver from Mucking, one reaches Pitsea. At this similarly unattractive-sounding locale an active landfill site still swallows around 800,000 tonnes of solid non-hazardous waste each year. Pitsea landfill will remain operational until 2025, but restoration work, paid for by operators Veolia, means the footprint of the site – which in its entirety covers 240 hectares – is gradually shrinking.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) currently manages land that was acquired by Veolia for a potential expansion but was never used. It hosts a thriving ecosystem, with badgers, bees and cetti’s warblers among the inhabitants.

Like Mucking, Pitsea is already home to one of the largest gas collection schemes in the UK, with “more than 40,000m of pipework, connecting over 800 active gas collection wells”, according to Veolia’s regional director Keith McGurk.

Eventually, when all landfill finally ceases, the RSPB could take over the management of the entire site. Natalie Holt, senior sites manager, South Essex and Wallasea Island reserves, says the charity’s aspiration is for it to be opened to the public as a nature reserve. However, the costs involved, particularly at a time when conservation bodies face financial uncertainty, could scupper such efforts.

Moves to ‘rewild’ and reuse former landfill sites do not always go smoothly. Peter Alfrey, an ecologist who has been working closely with the team running a restoration scheme at Beddington Farmlands in south London, says that sometimes they can do more harm than good. “All I can really say about this project is that it is a near complete disaster,” he says of the Beddington scheme.

“In theory it’s possible to develop quality habitats and a nature reserve on landfill sites, but in this case study, in reality, the leaseholder has used that concept as political capital to get planning permission to destroy an existing important wildlife area and build extensive waste-management infrastructure including a 300,000 tonne [capacity] incinerator.”

Viridor holds the lease on Beddington Farmlands. Ian Morrish, its director of landfill energy and restoration, says the company is “fully committed to developing the site to become one of the most important nature conservation areas in Greater London”. He adds that the firm has “extensive experience” of creating “high quality habitat” at ex-landfill sites and states: “Many of our sites have been awarded the Wildlife Trust’s Biodiversity Benchmark demonstrating the positive legacy landfill sites can leave for wildlife.”

Financial penalties levied on councils to encourage them to divert waste away from landfill sites has led to less material being poured into holes in the ground and more being burnt in incinerators. That means the trend for returning landfills to nature is only likely to continue – and not just in the UK. Fresh Kills, a huge landfill site on Staten Island, New York, closed in 2001, and city governors are in the process of creating a vast natural haven there. When complete, this will be three times the size of Central Park.

The diminishing number of operational landfill sites in the UK also continue to attract wildlife – in spite, or perhaps because, of their smell. Colonies of gulls commute to these man-made dining tables to glut themselves. In more exotic parts of the world, bears and hyenas have been known to stalk trash-heaps to scavenge for scraps. In nature, there really is no such thing as waste.

Our estuary tour ends close to where the river finally meets the sea. At Canvey Wick the RSPB manages part of an abandoned oil storage facility that is now open to the public and is said to contain more invertebrate species per square metre than the Amazon rainforest.

A world away from many people’s concept of a pristine natural environment, the site is about as brownfield as they come. An enormous dilapidated oil jetty juts out into the water and container cranes tower like giants on the horizon.

“It feels post-apocalyptic,” says warden Isobel Donovan, “as if there was a zombie apocalypse.” This post-industrial landscape, sometimes called a “concrete rainforest”, became an “accidental” nature reserve, she says. Insects are attracted by the heat-retaining tarmac and sandy soils from the Thames that were laid across the site before it closed during the oil crisis in the 1970s.

“We didn’t choose this as a nature reserve, nature chose it,” Donovan says. “It was quiet, undisturbed. Few people ever came here.”

For the same reason, many nature reserves are located on former Ministry of Defence land. Further afield, the Chernobyl exclusion zone is now reportedly a habitat for wolves, bears and other large carnivores. Their survival there makes forging wildlife habitats at ex-landfill sites look easy. 

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