Stuart Spray reports on how HS2 ‘enabling works’ continue to destroy the environment even though the project might be scrapped by the Government any day now.
HS2 workers are continuing to fell hundreds of ancient trees and clear kilometres of hedgerows, despite there being no decision on whether the Government will go ahead with the controversial London to Birmingham high speed railway following the completion of a review, started in September 2019.
According to the Woodland Trust, 108 ancient woodlands are threatened with loss or damage from both Phases 1 and 2 of HS2. Here is an interactive map showing the locations of the woodlands.
Our ancient woods are native woodlands that have had continuous canopy cover since before the 1600s and can be thousands of years old. They are rich in biodiversity and home to many rare plants and animals such as Bechstein’s bats and the lesser spotted woodpecker. Once an ancient woodland is felled it cannot be replaced.
In September 2019, spiralling costs, estimated to be in excess of £100 billion, persuaded the Government to order a review into HS2 to decide whether the project should continue.
what the papers don’t say
Whilst the review was taking place, the Government announced that certain “enabling works” would continue to allow clearance of the route, the construction of access tracks and creation of temporary compounds for vehicles, equipment and welfare facilities for workers. This is having dire consequences for irreplaceable habitat.
Broadcaster and naturalist Chris Packham CBE commented at the time: “To think that a single hectare of ancient woodland, indeed a single old oak might be unnecessarily felled and lost forever on account of a scheme which may not even progress is untenable.
“This Government should be minded to act to mitigate any environmental damage against its declaration of a climate and environmental emergency. These woodlands and their creatures are national natural treasures. They are not expendable, they are invaluable.”
As a result of a legal challenge from Packham, the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps eventually banned HS2 from cutting down any ancient woodlands until the review is completed.
Saving Cubbington Ancient Woodland
The ban should have included Cubbington Ancient Woodland in Warwickshire which is home to an iconic pear tree thought to be at least 250 years old and voted England’s Tree of the Year in 2015.
According to Woodland Protector Nikki Jones, this didn’t stop HS2 workers entering the woodland in October 2019 and trying to remove soils and clear anything that did not constitute a tree.
“We set a camp on what will be the track of HS2 in September 2019,” she said. “And if we hadn’t been here, this woodland would have gone during the review. I don’t think people really understand the scale of the project. Its completely illogical to do irreparable damage to something as precious as our ancient woodland during a stop-go review.”
During the past six months, the camp at South Cubbington Woodland has become a home-from-home and now boasts a kitchen, wood store, covered seating area complete with fire, yurt sleeping area, bird feeders and space for several visiting tents.
Warwickshire’s Woodland Protectors have not been so successful a few miles away where, despite their protests, hundreds of metres of ancient hedgerow and trees along both sides of Welsh Road, an old drovers’ road dating back to Roman times, have been destroyed in the past two weeks.
Like ancient woodland, some of the hedgerows which criss-cross Great Britain are many hundreds of years old with irreplaceable ecological, historical and cultural value. Hedges act as wildlife corridors connecting one woodland to another and are often where many of our ancient trees can also be found.
Other Sites Under Threat
When questioned during a visit to Welsh Road in January, Jeremy Wright, the Conservative MP for Kenilworth and Southam, said that ministers have now instructed HS2 that “no work is done in ancient woodland until a decision is made [to continue HS2 or not]”. He also confirmed that the postponement did not apply to “vegetation” outside designated ancient woodlands.
But, Woodland Protectors at Denham Country Park are facing a similar challenge. On Monday, HS2 workers were due to start cutting down an ancient wet woodland in Denham Country Park and Local Nature Reserve (LNR) on the outskirts of London to make way for a temporary compound.
Protestors forced the workers to abandon their plans by setting up a makeshift camp, building several platforms in the trees and restricting access to the site by blocking a bridge over the River Colne.
Sarah Green, coordinator of the Hillingdon Green Party, said: “Today we are stopping the HS2 construction workers coming into Denham Country Park which is a designated nature reserve of importance to London. We have seen about 200 trees which are marked up for felling. The damage has been going on for the last two years. We have had 3,000 trees that have been felled and there are an estimated 28,000 trees that are under threat of destruction from HS2 just in Hillingdon.”
She called for HS2 to be stopped because “we’ve got a climate and ecological emergency”.
“We’ve got to look after the nature reserves,” she added. “And we’ve got to create more nature reserves and we’ve got to travel slower and much less often.”
HS2 Must Not Go Ahead
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has indicated that a decision on whether HS2 will go ahead will be made “soon”. Meanwhile, the felling of ancient trees and destruction of hedgerows continues.
In addition to the 108 ancient woodlands, if given the go-ahead, the Wildlife Trusts predict that HS2 has the potential to damage five internationally-protected wildlife sites, 33 sites of special scientific interest (SSSIs) and 693 local wildlife sites covering 9,696 hectares.
It is not known exactly how many ancient trees or kilometres of hedgerow have already been lost to HS2. What is clear, however, is that without the dedication of a handful of environmental activists, the destruction so far would have been much greater.