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Thu 22 October 2020
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Stuart Spray reports on how the Countryside Alliance has joined the RSPB and Wildlife Trust in criticising potential wildlife crimes.

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Crackley Wood, renowned for being a remnant of the great Forest of Arden and for its inclusion in the 1086 Domesday Book, now has another claim to fame.

In a matter of days, it will be the first of the 108 ancient woodlands on the route of the new high speed railway where HS2 has completed its programme of felling.

As reported by Byline Times on 25 March, many conservation groups have been highly critical of HS2’s decision to fell woodland in the bird breeding season, raising concerns that active nests will be destroyed during the operations.

The issue has prompted CEO of the Countryside Alliance, Tim Bonner, to join The Wildlife Trusts and RSPB’s condemnation of HS2, stating that “the Alliance does not endorse any woodland or hedgerow management during the breeding season especially where the project has been planned for years and will take many years to complete. There is no excuse in these circumstances for felling during the breeding season”.

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. The Government’s wildlife agency, Natural England, recommends on its website that developments should avoid the bird breeding season form 1 March to 31 August.

HS2 argues that its contractors “are keenly aware of the law around nesting birds, and during nesting season an ecologist is present during all habitat clearance work in order to spot nesting birds and stop work where necessary” and “when nesting birds are discovered, our team will put a temporary exclusion zone in place until the chicks have fledged”.


Nests Are Being Missed

Ancient woodlands in the Midlands have the potential for more than 30 species of breeding birds, ranging from year-round residents such as treecreepers to summer visitors like garden warblers which migrate all the way from the sub-Saharan Africa.

Research led by British Trust for Ornithology’s (BTO) former director of science, Rob Fuller over the past 20 years suggests that it would be reasonable to anticipate 20 nests per 1000m² of unmanaged ancient woodland. But, if just four of the more common woodland species are taken into consideration, 11 nests might be expected including two blue tit, three chaffinch, three robin and three blackbird.

With one hectare of what was once ancient woodland now reduced to tree stumps and bare ground, the islands of vegetation where nests have been found and marked with hazard tape should be clearly visible. But apart from two nests reported by members of HS2 Crackley Wood Protection Camp, there are none.

A blue tit nest located just inside the perimeter of Heras fencing that surrounds the wood is one of the nests apparently missed by the HS2 ecologists. If it had not been found by the Stop HS2 campaigners, the nest would have been accidentally destroyed. Fortunately, the chainsaws were stopped less than one metre from the nest and a five metre retrospective disturbance exclusion zone was hastily marked out with hazard tape by HS2 contractors.

A wildlife crime was narrowly averted by the quick actions of the Stop HS2 campaigners and the nest appears to still be active, despite a branch falling on it from a nearby tree as it was felled. Although the incident appears to be minor it highlights the flawed thinking behind HS2’s decision to fell the cluster of Warwickshire ancient woodlands during the bird breeding season.

BTO CEO, Andy Clements, has questioned the approach of relying on ecologists to locate nests prior felling, saying: “In our experience, it is impossible to find all of the nests in a woodland – even with extensive searching by experienced nest finders”.

The “missed” blue tit nest at Crackley Wood appears to support Clements’ experience and raises the question: how many other nests have been or will be missed by the HS2 ecologists and end up being put through a chipper?

The role of an Ecological Clerk of Works (ECoW) is to provide advice about environmental and ecological issues during the course of a development. It is of note that, according to the Stop HS2 campaigner Matt Bishop, the ECoW on duty yesterday reported, via a police liaison officer, that it was his first day on site and he had not been briefed on the location or number of nests previously recorded in Crackley Wood.


Trained Hawks

The next ancient woodland on HS2’s list is Broadwell Wood, where ‘trained’ hawks have been flown to stop birds nesting.

The practice has been described as a ‘pointless box-ticking exercise’ by conservation groups and now a Freedom of Information (FOI) request has revealed that HS2 has no data or research to support the idea that “the use of specially trained hawks is an efficient and effective tool to ward off [breeding] birds”.

HS2 confirmed that its contractors employ a suite of measures to “minimise the potential for birds to start nesting” but appeared to contradict previous statements by acknowledging that “these measures will not prevent nesting activity completely but will act as a deterrent”.

The FOI statement continued: “The use of hawks in this way is a natural ethical method… endorsed as industry best practice by The British Pest Control Association (BPCA)”.

However, there was no mention of using hawks to deter nesting birds anywhere on the BPCA website and marketing and communications manager, Scott Johnston, challenged HS2’s FOI response. “We are not in a position to officially endorse this as we specialise in public health pest management rather than environmental protection,” he said.

Byline Times has also contacted NBC Environment, the pest control company contracted by HS2, to give it the opportunity to provide evidence that its method of controlling breeding birds in complex habitats such as ancient woodland works. It did not reply.

The Hawk Board represents all falconers and bird of prey keepers in the UK. Its chairman, Dr Gordon Mellor, could not shed much light on the subject either, commenting that although “research has been undertaken in context of airfield bird abatement” he was “unaware of any research that would support or deny woodland clearance and breeding suppression by use of trained raptors”.

Dr Mellor doubted it would be effective over a broad area of woodland but conceded that, if hawks were flown in February and March, it was possible that some early-nesters might be deterred from breeding.

He finished by stating that “to cut to the chase, the most effective way to avoid disturbing breeding birds in woodland would be to delay felling trees until late summer or the autumn.”


Bird Scarers

On other sites HS2 has used different methods, including bird decoys and a range of wind driven scaring devices, to stop birds nesting in trees and hedgerow.

Portek Limited, which produce the products used by HS2, states on its website that “research has proved that frequent changes in methods and types of bird scarers is the most effective way to keep birds off valuable crops.” But it does not recommend that they should be used to stop birds from nesting.

RSPB’s Tony Whitehead commented that the bird scarers “may have some limited effect”. Tim Bonner went further saying: “I’ve seen the rotating ones and ‘hawk’ kites used to protect crops from feeding birds – wood pigeon mainly, but also rooks etc. – and assume they must be fairly effective as farmers have persisted with them. Often used in places where shooting or a gas gun would be inappropriate e.g. near dwellings. This is very different however to scaring a songbird from a secreted nest and my gut feeling would be that it would be a waste of time or just going through the motions.”

HS2 has refused to provide any information about the number of nests that its ecologists have located so far this spring and has recommended instead that this information is obtained via a FOI request. A response to Byline Times‘ FOI request is expected by 18 May.


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