Work in progress

Turning tarmac into wetland…

South Kilminning is now under ownership of the Crail Community partnership who plan to rewild the site, removing the tarmac and replacing it with trees, meadows and a wetland. 

Kilminning was formerly part of Crail Airfield and is a regenerating brownfield site, blighted with a lot of tarmac. Nevertheless there is some good habitat that attracts and keeps migrants birds

In 2020, the community in Crail, after getting organized during a two-year long public consultation process (a charrette) to identify its priorities for the future, made a number of successful Community Land Asset Transfer applications to Fife Council. The charrette process identified an overwhelming priority amongst the Crail community to maintain and enhance the natural environment within and outside the town for wildlife as well as people. As a result, the Crail Community Partnership was formed, to work for these environmental improvements. Then lockdown happened and most of our plans had to be out on hold. But there was also an opportunity. We used the time to put together the case for transfer of ownership of council land around Crail back to the community. The core of our argument for this was there was a clear mandate from the charrette for adding wildlife habitat to the town and the need for local ownership in perpetuity to allow this to happen. Perhaps lockdown helped, when more of us realized the value of community wildlife spaces, or where the Council realized that they could not afford to look after, let alone improve, the areas we were asking for. In any case, we were successful, and three areas of amenity grassland were returned to the Crail community. One of these areas is Kilminning – part of it already leased to the SWT as a nature reserve, and part of it a brownfield site. We secured the existing nature reserve’s future forever, but also more land to enlarge and improve it.

Kilminning is located on the coastal path between Crail and Fife Ness. The coastal strip is the existing SWT reserve. The reserve will stay under SWT management, and the existing lease with Fife Council was transferred to the Crail Community Partnership. The reserve is an area of grassland managed by sheep grazing, with consequent interesting plant diversity. The area above it, however, is largely covered by tarmac left over from its use as an airfield. But trees and shrubs have begun to take over, making Kilminning a magnet for migrant birds, as one of the only bits of wooded habitat on Fife Ness. The site is well known to birders and gets scarce migrants regularly such as red-backed shrike, barred warbler, greenish warbler, red-breasted flycatchers and rosefinch. It occasionally gets spectacular rarities like the long staying eastern olivaceous warbler a few years ago and the Siberian thrush in autumn 2020. Despite its tarmac, it is a good site. But there is a clear opportunity to make it even better: to return this brownfield site into a proper wildlife habitat.

Eastern olivaceous warbler (John Anderson)
Red-breasted flycatcher (John Anderson)

We plan to create a much more interesting and biodiverse space for nature and for people. We plan to remove much of the tarmac (although leaving enough for access and parking) to create space for more trees, for water and so for more wildlife. We plan to greatly increase the tree and shrub cover, and to connect Kilminning to other sites around Crail via a network of wooded paths. Over the next thirty years we want to have Kilminning as part of a network of wildlife sites so that a person could walk all day around Crail in biodiverse, beautiful habitat. And of course, this will all make the area better for migrant and resident birds.

Can we turn the tarmac into wetland?

Addition of wetland habitat to the East Neuk, where there is none at all, would greatly increase the attraction of the area to birds and other wildlife. There is a fast flowing burn that exits from under the tarmac to flow through a concrete channel through the coastal reserve: we can fully uncover this water source and rewild its flow to create a wetland. A flooded meadow certainly, but possibly also a lochan.

Although we have already obtained ownership of the site from Fife Council for £1, we needed to pay the legal fees for Kilminning (land transfers might be cheap but lawyers are not). We also needed to do some prompt infrastructure work to manage access to prevent off road driving and fly tipping. We needed to get some funds to consult professionals about the hydrology of the site and the engineering needed to remove the tarmac and to create a loch and flooded meadow instead. To these ends we carried out some crowd funding in November and December 2020 and raised over £10,000 from over 100 donors to the project.

In 2021, we made a number of access restrictions. A recurrent problem at Kilminning is antisocial use: fly tipping, dirty camping (litter, human poo, chopping of living trees for firewood), and off-road driving. These activities are all made easier by access of vehicles to out of the way corners, where out of sight, antisocial activities are more likely. Our initial solution was to block off the vehicular access to most of the tarmac areas, although leaving the access road and a large car parking area for legitimate users of the area. A local farmer provided a JCB and his son as a driver and we moved large boulders to block access. Then followed a summer of the boulders being moved and further fly tipping and dirty camping. As fast as we could return the boulders to their positions (and these were serious boulders, breaking the JCB bucket as we moved them), they were dragged back out of the way. Finally, we had an illegal break in, with cut locks at the height access barrier and a suite of caravans arrived intent on long term residence. Our response was to replace the stone barriers with piles of soil that could not be removed without heavy machinery. Kilminning already has a network of soil banks to restrict access and they are a sensible solution. Bits of the tarmac get covered with soil, which can then be planted with trees to begin to rewild more of the site. Best of all they categorically discourage large scale, long term, dirty, camping with vehicles. Currently we are working on completing and greening the earth barriers that should completely prevent access except to the main car park. Access does remain along the track by the water treatment shed, but we plan to block that with a locked gate by spring 2022.         

During the summer of 2021 we also commissioned a feasibility study from the environmental engineering company Stantec. They investigated how we could remove the tarmac from the site, dig a few large holes, and then uncover the currently underground burn that drains through Kilminning as a water source to create a wetland instead. Apparently, it is possible. As with anything engineered, it is just a matter of how much it will cost. The bottom line to create the wetland pictured: perhaps as much as £750,000. Initially this seemed to me to be an impossibly large sum to contemplate. I was cured of this by watching an episode of Grand Designs where just one person spent this amount to create their dream house. In this context – rewilding a brownfield site to increase natural beauty and biodiversity for the enjoyment of hundreds of locals and thousands of visitors, every year, forever – three quarters of a million seems cheap at the price.

So what are the plans for 2022? Tweaking access; another litter pick; tree and hedge planting along the boundaries; grassland management; writing a formal “business” and fundraising plan to begin the habitat creation work. Key to this is, perhaps, to do the work in phases so that we can realistically fund raise in more manageable tranches. Initially we can break up break up some of the tarmac and begin planting trees. Then perhaps we can restore the water flow along the surface. Then we can create a flooded meadow and a seasonal pond. And then finally we can dig out a lochan: the most expensive step of all. Realistically we have a lot to do and a lot of money to raise. We won’t be able to do it without involving industry, government and lottery support. But many similar local habitat creation projects have happened in the UK and the key to their success was, I think, just people working at it for long enough. I for one am fed up with feeling powerless that my local landscape is just getting worse and nothing is improving for nature.  

This small bit of regenerated woodland on the edge of the tarmac already provides great habitat for migrant birds. I have seen Eastern Olivaceous Warbler, Siberian Thrush, Red-breasted Flycatcher, Hawfinch, Dusky Warbler, Icterine Warbler, Common Rosefinch, Barred Warbler, Wood Warbler, Yellow-browed Warbler, Greenish Warbler, Marsh Warbler…all from this spot

Whatever or whenever the exact outcome, we will end up with a rewilded site, better for wildlife and people. And a much better nature reserve, secure forever in community ownership against future development. If you would like to get involved, please email

Common redstart (John Anderson)

Posted December 4, 2021 by wildcrail

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