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Thu 29 October 2020
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As HS2 prepares to fell ancient woodlands in the bird breeding season, Natural England’s response to using hawks to deter nesting birds is “lame and inadequate” says Chris Packham. 

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Natural England, the Government body tasked with promoting nature conservation and protecting biodiversity, has refused to comment on the effectiveness of HS2 using a pest control company to fly Harris’ Hawks to deter nesting birds in Broadwells Wood so it can be felled during the bird breeding season.  

Broadcaster and naturalist Chris Packham has condemned the apparent refusal to take HS2 to task saying “Natural England knows, we all know that the use of hawks is an exercise in lip service so HS2 can say they are doing something. But we all know it’s bullsh*t and there is no way it’s going to work”.

It is an offence under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) to kill, injure or take wild birds, or to damage their nests when in use. This legislation provides legal protection for 12 months for the year including the official bird breeding season from March to August and the idea that flying trained hawks could stop birds nesting in a broadleaf woodland has also been widely dismissed by non-government conservation bodies such as the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust (WWT)The Woodland Trust and the RSPB

During a recent site visit to Broadwells Wood, RSPB’s Central and Eastern Operations Director Jeff Knott said: “There is no chance at all that flying a couple of Harris’ Hawk backwards and forwards through this wood is going to disturb the birds and prevent them breeding at all.

“The birds nesting here will be well used to having birds of prey around and the idea that flying a few falcons around or a few hawks around is going to stop them breeding is frankly a nonsense.

“If they have to go ahead and actually fell this wood, as a bare minimum it should be felled outside of the breeding season, from September onwards, because that is the only way that HS2 can be sure that they are complying with the law.”

The practice was first reported by Channel 4 News two weeks ago. However, following a request from Byline Times, HS2 could not provide any evidence or research to back up its statement that “the use of specially trained hawks is an efficient and effective tool to ward off [breeding] birds” in an ancient broadleaf woodland. HS2 also refused to comment on the footage filmed by Channel 4 News of a songbird being caught and killed by one of their “trained” hawks. 

Since the Channel 4 News broadcast, the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) – the UK’s leading bird research organisation – and the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) – the leading professional membership body representing and supporting ecologists and environmental managers in the UK – have both contested the use of hawks.

A CIEEM representative said: “This [flying hawks in broadleaf woodland to stop birds nesting] is not a recognised, nor fully understood, method of preventing birds from breeding within a diverse habitat. Flying birds of prey may deter some species but will not stop all nesting.” 

Andy Clements, CEO of BTO, has gone further by saying that “in theory, flying hawks in woodland to prevent birds from nesting will have limited effect. Sparrowhawks will almost certainly use the same woodland and this wouldn’t prevent the other birds that use the woodland from breeding. They will have lived alongside the Sparrowhawks their whole lives – for some small birds maybe as long as a decade”. 

He concluded by saying “this isn’t an efficient and effective tool to ward off breeding birds”.

HS2 maintains that the reason it has to fell in the breeding season is because it is running behind schedule and that this is due to protestors stopping it from working over the dormant winter months. However, the Government actually banned all works inside any ancient woodland during the Oakervee Review which was commissioned to advise the Government on ‘whether and how’ to proceed with HS2. The ban was only lifted on 11 February, when the Prime Minister announced the Government’s formal green light for the HS2 project just 18 days before the official start of the nesting season. 

As reported by Bylines Times previously, the presence of protestors elsewhere on the high speed route did not stop HS2 clearing hundreds of ancient trees and hedgerows as part of permitted preparation works whilst the review took place. 


Natural England’s Response ‘Lame and Inadequate’

However, in the statement issued on 19 March, Natural England has refused to be drawn into commenting specifically on the case of HS2 flying Hawks in Broadwells Woodland saying that “Natural England cannot comment on the effectiveness of specific approaches to deterring birds from construction sites due to the widely varying conditions associated with any individual site and the methods used”.

The statement went on to advise that “works affecting hedgerows and trees should be timed to avoid the breeding bird season (approximately 1 March to 31 August)” and “where such work needs to be undertaken during the bird breeding season it should only be carried out when it can confidently be shown that no nesting or breeding birds will be affected”.

Natural England also recommended that “members of the public who consider that a wildlife offence being committed, should contact their local police force”.

“With so many contractors doing own thing and no shared environmental mandate, HS2 is out of control,” said Chris Packham adding that, although he considered Natural England’s response to be “lame and inadequate”, it was not unsurprising as the organisation is “buckling under an onslaught of Government cuts and is struggling to meet its targets”.

“We all want to give Natural England a kick up the arse but what they really need is £50 million so they can get on with their job,” he added. 


Best Practice

As part of its contribution to the Channel 4 News item, HS2 also said that it does not “clear trees during the nesting season unless an ecologist is present to spot any nests”. 

However, BTO’s Andy Clements has also questioned this approach saying that “in our experience it is impossible to find all of the nests in a woodland – even with extensive searching by experienced nest finders”.

CIEEM confirmed that any nest searches would have to be extensive and comprehensive to be adequate then “only be considered as a last resort”.

Both BTO and CIEEM agreed that best practice in this situation would be to fell Broadwells Wood outside of the breeding season to ensure that no nesting birds are present.  


‘No Witnesses to Wildlife Crimes’

This week also saw herris fencing going up around Broadwells Wood and signs erected on the edge of the woodland informing potential trespassers to “keep out” under threat of civil or criminal proceedings.

And on 17 March, HS2 won an injunction at Birmingham’s Business and Property Court to restrain future trespass and to stop “persons unknown” entering or remaining in Broadwells Wood without consent. Anyone caught entering the wood could end up with a six month prison sentence or worse. 

Commenting on HS2’s injunction, Stop HS2’s campaign manager Joe Ruken said: “Having used tame hawks in a failed attempt to scare off nesting birds, and very specifically saying they intend to start cutting down ancient woodland in April, HS2 Ltd have signalled their intent to break the law and interfere with nesting birds and this injunction is for the sole purpose of making sure there are no witnesses to their crimes.”


Gold Standard Protection No Longer A Priority

In a statement, HS2 told Bylines Times: “All our ecology work is carried out in accordance with the law” and that “licenses from Natural England ensure that we have the right safeguarding in place to protect wildlife species and that other protections are met”. 

But, HS2’s reference to protected species licenses appears to be a red herring because, in response to a Freedom of Information request asking for copies of any licenses to disturb breeding birds or destroy active breeding birds’ nests in Broadwells Wood, Natural England clearly stated that “Natural England does not issue licences to disturb breeding birds for the purpose of development. Therefore, such licences do not exist”. 

HS2’s statement continued: “This means our contractors will do everything in the right way, will avoid carrying out any unlawful activities and will not knowingly destroy any occupied bird nests.”

It appears to confirm that HS2 will be taking advantage of a legal loophole when it fells Broadwells Wood. Whilst it is illegal to deliberately disturb or destroy bird’s nests, the same act is not illegal if conducted accidentally or “not knowingly” in the words of HS2.  

Legal loopholes might make good business sense, but they also send a clear message that the Government’s ambition for HS2 “to employ world-class environmental standards that protect and enhance the natural and historic environment for the enjoyment of this and future generations” and a “gold standard for the protection of the natural environment” is no longer a priority or even a desire. 


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