Telling the beautiful story of Joe's Pond as Durham Wildlife Trust celebrates 50 years of breathing new life into North East's former industrial sites

From seeds of conservation sown 50 years ago amidst the region’s heavily-industrialised landscape, Durham Wildlife Trust has blossomed into a flourishing charity which cares for 50 sites.

Saturday, 18th June 2022, 4:55 am

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This year marks the 50th anniversary celebrations of the conservation charity which manages hundreds of acres of land, from ancient woodland and large heaths to grassland meadows and wetlands, across Sunderland, Durham, Darlington, Gateshead and South Tyneside.

Founded in July 1971 (last year’s planned 50th celebrations were postponed), it started life when the wider region was part of County Durham, hence the trust’s name, and when much of the landscape was dominated by pits, quarries and cranes.

As industry declined, nature healed and today what was once the craters and heaps left behind by mining the land is home to hundreds of species.

Celebrating 50 years of Durham Wildlife Trust

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We met with Durham Wildlife Trust director Jim Cokill at the trust’s headquarters in Rainton Meadows Nature Reserve near Houghton.

The area, also home to Joe’s Pond, is a shining example of how, given time, nature can return and thrive despite the scars of industry.

Named after local man Joe Wilson, Joe’s Pond is a pioneering example of conservation. Recognising the need for a haven for nature amidst the dirt and decimation of the coal mines, Joe leased the pond, an old clay pit pond, from the National Coal Board in the 1950s and began looking after wildlife there.

Durham Wildlife Trust acquired the site in the ‘70s, carrying on Joe’s good work and his legacy lives on today, with the area recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest that’s rich in biodiversity from swans, herons and water voles to robins, dragonflies and bats and hundreds of important plant species.

Trust Director Jim Cokill.

The neighbouring Rainton Meadows Nature Reserve was acquired in 1997 with the trust’s headquarters and the visitor centre housed in the old offices of Rye Hill open cast mine.

Jim said: “Joe’s is an example we can all follow: if you give nature a chance it can recover. Thankfully, Joe saw the potential in this site and looked after it and we can all benefit from that today.”

He added: “In this part of the world there’s a lot of industrial landscape, but if that’s restored correctly, and looked after correctly, it can become a home for wildlife once again. It just shows the power of recovery nature has. If you just give it a chance it can recover and we can really tackle the ecological emergency, and that can also help us tackle climate change with habitats like woodlands and wetlands soaking carbon out of the atmosphere.”

Much of the land the trust cares for was once collieries and mines and, for its 50th year, the trust set itself a challenge to take the total of sites up to 50.

Local man Joe Wilson leased the pond from the National Coal Board in the 1950s to help local wildlife

Working with local councils, funders and communities they achieved their goal, taking the number of sites from 36 to 50, creating more spaces for wildlife and for people to enjoy.

Sites currently managed by the charity include Hawthorn Dene near Seaham, Low Barns Nature Reserve near Witton-le-Wear, Herrington Hill, Bishop Middleham Quarry near Sedgefield, Chopwell Meadows, Trimdon Grange Quarry, Hedleyhope Fell near Tow Law and dozens more.

The trust relies on its 10,000 members to help fund its vital conservation work, as well as its staff and hundreds of volunteers.

Jim says, as with many nature areas, its sites saw a surge in visitors during lockdown as people began to appreciate and utilise the country’s natural spaces more.

Reed Bunting enjoying a feast at Joe's Pond

Rainton Meadows alone doubled its annual visitor numbers, from an estimated 25,000 to 50,000. The reserve is home to hundreds of wildlife and plants, from the visiting Exmoor Ponies who graze the land to the hundreds of waterfowl which inhabit the lakes left behind by the old Rainton Colliery.

Jim said: “We noticed a real upturn in the number of visitors. People began to pay attention to their local area. They many have driven past here a 100 times and never come in, but they decided to during lockdown and that number of visitors has stayed with us as well, we still have more people visiting.

“If there’s any silver lining to come from the Covid cloud, it’s that. It’s something that we need to follow through though. As I say, nature can recover if we give it a chance, but we actually need to do something. We need to provide that opportunity and we need to enjoy it when we can.”

How you can help Durham Wildlife Trust

When you become a member of Durham Wildlife Trust your monthly or annual donation plays a vital part in protecting and conserving wildlife.

As a local charity, it focuses on the immediate environment.

Orchid is one of the many flowering species at the site

One of the best things you can do to support wildlife where you live is to join your local wildlife trust. Your contribution makes a real difference.

Membership includes a welcome pack including activities for children. You can choose what you pay. For membership and to learn more about the trust visit www.durhamwt.com

Trust Director Jim Cokill at one of the many viewpoints on the reserve
Exmoor Ponies graze the land, which is important in conserving the rare habitats
Jim Cokill inspecting the wild flower
One of the viewing platforms at Joe's Pond
The visitor centre and trust headquarters at Rainton Meadows Nature Reserve