Friday, 31 October 2014

The A-Team: Protecting Northern Ireland's Rocks...by Kirstin Lemon

In 2014, a team of crack scientists from the British Geological Survey was sent out into the field to help protect Northern Ireland's finest geological features. These geologists promptly set to work amidst some of the heaviest rain seen for months, traversing gushing streams, dodging excited cattle, battling fading light, and climbing over a multitude of fences to achieve their goal.

A small Clay-with-Flints exposure (centre) at Belshaw's Quarry
near Lisburn, Co. Antrim. Taken on the wettest day in six months. 
Okay, so perhaps the opening paragraph is slightly over-dramatic but this year saw the beginning of a new collaboration between BGS scientists at the Geological Survey of Northern Ireland, and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA), an agency within the Department of the Environment (NI). The aim of this work is to help protect some of the nation's most important geological sites by designating them as Areas of Special Scientific Interest (ASSIs, and where the 'A' in the A-Team comes from).

The sites were first identified as part of the Earth Science Conservation Review (ESCR) over a decade ago and since then the NIEA has been systematically awarding ASSI status to those deemed as being of national importance. However, not even half of those sites identified have been designated so to help achieve the full quota of ASSIs and to solve the problem of a the lack of in-house resources at NIEA, BGS scientists were brought in to help.

Under this new collaboration, a total of 15 sites will be designated annually, chosen from a key theme or a number of themes. For 2014, the sites included are all under the Caledonian Igneous Complex theme, or of the Clay-with-Flints Formation theme.

Dr Mark Cooper examining the Clay-with-Flints
Formation at Donald's Hill, Co. Londonderry.
The process for this to happen involves preparing indicative site boundaries, visiting each site to check that all features are present and in good condition, and then preparing information packages. Each package includes information on why the site is to be designated, views about management, conservation objectives, maps, photos and a Special Places leaflet to be given to each land owner explaining in layman's terms why the site is being designated.

Some of the sites surveyed have been very straightforward with many of them being quarries, both active and disused, or natural outcrops on farmland. Others haven't been quite so simple and have involved crossing mainline railway tracks, accessing a road-cutting on the main A1 road between Belfast and Dublin, avoiding bin lorries at a landfill site and even being denied access due to the filming of Game of Thrones (more on this in a later blog!).



This important collaboration between BGS and the NIEA is a great step forward in helping to protect some of our most vulnerable and significant geological sites. It also offers a wonderful opportunity to stimulate further research into Northern Ireland's diverse geological history to help provide an even greater understanding of our natural landscapes.

So in the words of the 1980s television series (sort of), the A(SSI)-Team is still wanted by the government, and they survive as scientists with the BGS. If you have a geological problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them (see below), maybe you can use the A(SSI)-Team.

If you want any more information on the ASSI programme being worked on by the BGS then please contact klem@bgs.ac.uk.






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