The oil shale bings of West Lothian are far more than a relic of the county’s industrial past to horticulturalist Anne Prestage. They provide proof of the tenacity of nature as the barren mounds gradually transform from something resembling a lunar landscape to a haven for flora and fauna.
Anne, a former theatre nurse, undertook a project on the bings â€“ the only ones of their kind in the UK – for her HND in Horticulture with Plantsmanship at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh. She discovered that they are providing a habitat for pioneering plant communities. Many species marginalised by agriculture find a haven in the bings, including rare mosses, lichens and orchids, as well as badgers, hares and many butterflies and insects.
Anne’s interest in the bings began eight years ago when she moved near to Philpstoun from Edinburgh. She explained, â€œWhen I came to live in West Lothian I started to walk my dog on the bings and realised just how important a habitat they are for many plants and insects. I noticed how many varieties of plants were growing on the bings, and was pleasantly surprised to find species that don’t normally grow in this area.
â€œMany people mistakenly think bings are toxic and covered in nettles and I believe it is important to dispel that myth. The soil is alkaline and provides the perfect habitat for over 350 species of flora, lichens and mosses ”
Anne, who now works in the Alpine House at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, , “I used to be a theatre nurse and worked in a hospital for 20 years. I became interested in plants through medicine, realising how many drugs came from plants.â€™â€™
She decided to change career after her brother, David died of cancer at the age of 46. “When David died I realised how important it is to do the things you want to do in life There were so many things David never got the chance to do. He has been my inspiration.â€™â€™
“I decided to do the HND course part-time and chose the flora of the oil shale bings as one of my projects. I learned a lot from the work of Barbara Harvie who had done her PhD on bings and wrote the Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) for West Lothian. This included generating public awareness, so part of my project was to explore ways of bringing information to the public.
“I decided to do the HND course part-time and chose the flora of the oil shale bings as one of my projects. I learned a lot from the work of Barbara Harvie who had done her PhD on bings and wrote the Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) for West Lothian. She found that locally rare animals like hares, red grouse, sky larks, badgers and common blue butterflies can be found on many bings. Locally rare plants include alpine clubmoss, tall melilot, common wintergreen and a variety of orchids. Eight nationally (UK) scarce lichen and moss species have also been recorded on the shale bings.
â€˜â€™The bings play an important part in the areaâ€™s heritage. They are formed from waste material from an industrial process to remove crude oil (paraffin) from deep mined oil-bearing shale. The process was developed and patented by James “Paraffin” Young in 1851 and for a few years Scotland was the major oil-producing nation of the world. Many people, even whole families, would have been employed in the oil shale mines. I know local people are aware of their history but I think it is important to raise awareness more broadly and to let people know what a vital role the bings are playing in the ecology of the today. Addiewell bing is in a Scottish Wildlife Trust nature reserve and Greendykes, Faucheldean and Five Sisters are industrial heritage sites.â€™â€™
The ecology and biodiversity of the bing sites make them ideal for describing and monitoring the processes and mechanisms of vegetation dynamics over a wide range of conditions. They provide an insight into the best-suited ecosystem structures for similar sites in other countries.