Professor Cynthia Burek FGS from University of Chester gave the evening lecture on Wednesday 21 June 2017. Taking the title ‘Geoconservation and the Saltscape Project’, Cynthia introduced the concept of geoconservation and illustrated it with interesting references to a £1.5 million Lottery project which is protecting many aspects of the heritage of a huge salt industry which once existed in the Weaver Valley of Cheshire. The first Lottery application in 2012 failed, perhaps due to the Olympics, but a second application in 2014 was successful.

Geodiversity is part of the natural setting, an integral part of nature, and merits conservation in the same way that living species do. Geoconservation is action taken with intent to conserve and enhance geological and geomorphological (landform) features, processes, sites and species. Professor Burek, is the only professor of geoconservation anywhere, as far as she knows, and she emphasises the operative word, ‘action’. Mostly geoconservation applies to sites. There are exposure sites where there is usually more of the same behind the exposure; and integrity sites where a deposit or landform is an irreplaceable feature; and there are finite sites which, without conservation, would have a limited lifespan. There are also different strategies for conservation. Exposure sites merely need to be maintained but integrity and finite sites need to be conserved or preserved.

Unlike conservation practice in the biological and archaeological sciences, which is underpinned by public concern and legislation, geoconservation is a newcomer. Although geodiversity in a sense underpins biodiversity, its legislation is limited to a single reference in a paragraph of Planning Policy Guidance (PPG) 16 for England & Wales, which deals with archaeology and planning, though statutory protection of a geological site can be given in exceptional circumstances by designation as an SSSI (site of special scientific interest). Otherwise there is no legislation framing geoconservation. There are however, Geoparks, a UNESCO initiative, and there is the Geological Conservation Review (GCR), forty-five volumes of public record which documents important geological sites in the UK. These are all advisory regarding protection, as is the RIGS scheme, the designation of Regionally Important Geodiversity Sites (in Wales), or LGS, locally important geological sites (in England).

Cynthia outlined the nature of the salt industry around Winsford, Northwich and Middlewich (‘wych’ means salt). It lies in the Mercian Mudstone Group of the Triassic period. Iron Age peoples knew of it and the Roman 20th Legion exploited it. It is still used across the UK today. The underground caverns are so huge it can take half an hour to drive to the present salt face. Wet salt occurs in brine springs controlled by pumping, and dry salt is mined beneath an impermeable clay layer. A geological component of the Lottery project has included the identification of nine sites now reported to the LPA as requiring RIGS designation. Auditing is underway, with four already completed. Two conferences and six geological trails with leaflets are included in the work.

Clearly the Saltscape Project is one which it would be interesting for MWGC to visit. A lively discussion ensued, especially regarding the need to make RIGS information freely available on the internet wherever practicable, especially when it had been generated using public funds, a view with which Cynthia seemed in broad agreement.