The High Speed Railway project (or HS2) will destroy or impact important wildlife-rich habitat in a country that is rapidly losing its precious biodiversity (as clearly stated in the State of Nature Report 2019) for the first world problem of saving a few minutes on a rail journey. Costs are spiralling ever-upwards (ironically because high-speed lines cost more to build safely) while public sector expenditure on biodiversity in the UK, as a proportion of GDP, has fallen by 42% since a peak in 2008/09. With commuting habits changing in the devestating wake of Covid-19 and many more people set to work from home on a permanent basis, the argument for HS2 collapses even further.
However, the government appears to be ramping up work on the project. And with it the very high environmental cost. A few weeks ago an independent team of ecologists released the news of the discovery of a (Western) Barbastelle bat roost at Jones Hill Wood, Buckinghamshire, one of 20 local ancient woodlands targeted for clearance by HS2. 0.7 ha of the 1.8ha site will be lost. The Barbastelle was Listed as Vulnerable to extinction in Great Britain in the first Red List for Mammals (published in August 2020) and has a very high level of legal protection. Very few breeding sites are currently known here and, to quote the Bat Conservation Trust, “it is important that surrounding environments of these and winter hibernation sites are maintained“.
One of the ecologists involved with this important discovery was Kevin Hand, who is Vice President of the Cambridge Natural History Society and has a special interest in birds, mammals and ecotourism. He has written a guest post for us describing a visit to Jones’ Hill Wood and the wildlife he found there – wildlife which included one of the UK’s rarest bat species…
Barbastelles, Jones Hill Woods, and HS2
By chance I found myself recently at a Stop HS2 camp at Denham Country Park, in the beautiful Colne Valley, on the fringes of London not far from Heathrow. I had planned a day out to catch up with a friend and he suggested we visit. We were warmly welcomed and it was quickly apparent that as a trained and experienced ecologist here was something practical I could do to help our wildlife, and to help some very inspiring young people.
I set up a training session on monitoring protected species, and we were all delighted when we found clear evidence of water voles grazing on the edges of the chalk streams…but tinged with regret that these same streams were to be deeply affected by developments associated with the vast HS2 project.
I went on to run training and monitoring sessions at other protest camps, joining a growing team of ecologists, lawyers and others who were volunteering their expertise to ensure Britain’s wildlife laws were not broken by HS2. This culminated in our biggest find so far…extremely rare barbastelle bats roosting in Jones Hill Wood, near Wendover, directly in the path of the high speed railway.
We had an excellent day, exploring hazel hedges looking for nuts nibbled by the protected hazel dormouse, and noting active badger setts marked with their distinctive footprints, straw bedding discarded when cleaning their setts, and their distinctive latrines which act as markers for an animal whose sense of smell is highly developed. We also noted many potential bat roost sites in the trees, so we planned a full evening survey, using bat detectors and watchers sitting or walking around the edge of the wood.
Jones Hill is a beautiful site, and the inspiration for Roald Dahl’s magical tale of the Fantastic Mr Fox, besieged in his earth by those intent on destroying his family. The wood belongs to Liberty of London, the clothes shop which began life as a family business making furniture here in the Chilterns beechwoods. They have welcomed the Stop HS2 activists, and done their best to resist the compulsory purchase of much of the wood, though without success. As the sun set, red kites returned to roost and tawny owls began to call, it was hard to imagine a viaduct crossing the valley and altering it for ever.
We had just finished and were saying our goodbyes when my bat detector registered the distinctive ultrasonic call of the barbastelle!
The bat left a wonderful old oak and set off to feed. For these rare creatures the whole wood is their roost colony, and further research showed a number of other roost trees which seems to be used throughout Jones Hill Wood.
All UK bats are protected [*see below] and I naively assumed that legal protection of wildlife in Britain meant just that. But it seems that powerful organisations can apply to Natural England for licences to circumvent the law, and HS2 have done just that for much of the route. This information is hard to find, and seems to need Freedom of Information requests in most cases. But for Jones Hill Wood, no licences for bats had been applied for. Again, it seems amazing to me that licences can be obtained fairly quickly for the commoner bat species. But barbastelle is rightly given much better protection. The roosts need to be monitored carefully, and this cannot now be done until May next year.
So, what will happen to the barbastelles of Jones Hill Wood, and indeed the wood itself? Since our work many of the protesters have been forcibly evicted from the hs2 part of the wood, although their camp beneath the trees still owned by Liberty is very active and full of people from all backgrounds…although more will be warmly welcomed, especially in the next few weeks . HS2 have installed security fences, powerful spotlights shining onto the roost trees, and teams of dozens of security men now occupy their part of the wood 24 hours a day. The affect of all this on the bats can easily be imagined.
As I write, work has yet to start on felling the trees, but this could happen any day now. HS2 appear to be doing their own ecological surveys, using contractors, but have declined to explain what they are doing or what their plans are. A legal case has been put together, and wildlife crimes reported to the police, who are obviously in close contact with HS2, having carried out the evictions of the protesters. At least questions are now being asked in Parliament, probably the only place where this project can still be stopped, with public opinion moving firmly against such great expenditure for so little gain, in a time of crisis.
Will the law and the bats prevail? I will leave you to your own conclusions. And there are 139 other ancient woods along the route, as well as countless hedges, old oaks, thatched cottages, all destined for a similar fate.
* In Britain all bat species and their roosts are legally protected by both domestic and international legislation (see Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) (as amended) and Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations (2017) (as amended).)
This means it is a criminal offence:
- To deliberately take, injure or kill a wild bat
- To intentionally or recklessly disturb a bat in its roost or deliberately disturb a group of bats.
- To damage or destroy a place used by bats for breeding or resting (roosts) (even if bats are not occupying the roost at the time)
- To possess or advertise/sell/exchange a bat of a species found in the wild in the EU (dead or alive) or any part of a bat.
- To intentionally or recklessly obstruct access to a bat roost.
If you would like to support the campaigns to stop HS2 please note that you would be welcome to visit HS2 protest camps (subject to local Covid-19 restrictions and social distancing requirements of course).
- Learn more about the national campaign against HS2 at Stop HS2
- Join the Facebook group Save Roald Dahl Woods from HS2