THE RECLAIMERS
BBC Wildlife|May 2021
Across the world, land that has been used and abandoned by humans is being recolonised by the plants and animals that were there in the first place. Cal Flyn highlights ten hotspots where wildlife is thriving among the ruins.
Cal Flyn

BIKINI ATOLL

Marshall Islands

The Bikini Atoll is a ring of coral islets encircling a turquoise lagoon that sits in the Pacific Ocean about 2,900km north-east of Papua New Guinea. It was used by the United States as a testing ground for nuclear weapons during the 1940s and 1950s – most notably for the Castle Bravo test in 1954, during which a thermonuclear device was detonated to produce an explosion more than 7,000 times the force of that dropped on Hiroshima.

The blast gouged a crater more than 1.5km across and 80m deep, vaporised two islets and flash-boiled the water in the lagoon, which soared to temperatures of 55,000ºC. It was left a blighted underwater wasteland, devoid of life.

But in 2008, an international team of researchers found a thriving ecosystem had formed up in the crater in the intervening years. While above ground the atoll remains eerily abandoned, its coconuts too contaminated to eat, its waters are now a whirl of kaleidoscopic life, hosting one of the most impressive coral reefs on the planet.

Visiting Bikini in 2017, Stephen Palumbo from Stanford University, California, reported hundreds of schools of fish, from snappers to reef sharks, and described the scene as “visually and emotionally stunning”. Conversely, the fish had been protected from disturbance by the atoll’s traumatic past.

SWONA

Scotland

Sitting in the Pentland Firth, off the northern tip of mainland Scotland, the small island of Swona was abandoned by its final residents – three elderly siblings – in 1974. Before they left, they released their cattle to graze the grassy sward, assuming they or their family would shortly return to care for them. But nobody came back, and the livestock have since roamed free, living feral on the island and surviving many a wild winter with no supplementary food.

In the absence of husbandry, the cattle are unusual in that they live in a mixed-sex herd and behave in a similar way to wild horses or deer: the bulls fight for dominance – the loser is exiled to a small headland.

The cows are now considered to have become sufficiently genetically distinct to comprise a new breed. In winter, they shelter inside the ruined buildings that dot the island, many of which have lain empty for 100 years.

Swona is also now home to thousands of seabirds, including puffins, who burrow into the steep green hillside, and Arctic terns, which gather each year in a vast colony in the island’s northern reaches, laying their eggs on the churned-up ground.

CWM COLLIERY

Wales

A number of former mining areas in Wales have been identified as hubs of biodiversity in recent years, including Cwm Colliery near Beddau, where a new species of small, eerily pale millipede dubbed the ‘Beddau Beast’ was discovered in 2019. The find followed the identification of the previously undescribed ‘Maerdy Monster’, found at another former colliery in Rhondda Cynon Taff in 2017. Thanks to their free-draining nature, coal tips attract many species usually at home in sand dunes, such as mining bees. So, as entomologist Liam Olds has remarked, “there is still mining going on in the South Wales valleys”.

Former metal mines and the area around Swansea (once nicknamed ‘Copperopolis’ for its thriving smelting industry) are also notable for their unusual plant and lichen life.

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