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Wed 22 September 2021

A freedom of information request has revealed the extent of the damage done to ancient woodland – and failures to count the destruction – caused by the controversial rail project

Fifteen hectares of ancient woodland have been destroyed in the development of the national high-speed railway HS2, the Byline Intelligence Team (BITE) can reveal. 

A freedom of information request sent to HS2 LTD – the taxpayer-owned company responsible for the huge railway infrastructure project – revealed that, to date, the construction of HS2’s Phase One has resulted in the removal of 116 hectares of all woodland types.

This included the destruction of 15 hectares of woodland habitat that is more than 400 years old. It is likely that many of these trees would have been planted before Sir Robert Walpole became Britain’s first Prime Minister. 

Phase One of the transportation project involves the creation of a high-speed railway line linking London to the north of Birmingham. It also involves the construction of four new stations, including the ill-thought-out name of Old Oak Common in West London. 

Despite the felling of such ancient trees, the project first being proposed in 2009, and costs for the railway soaring, not a single mile of track has yet to be laid. 

BITE enquired as to the specific number and species of individual trees cut down to develop the high-speed rail network. However, HS2 Ltd disclosed that it does not record information “based on individual tree count”, instead focusing “on vegetation clearance in terms of area”.

This means that despite the Conservatives – who back the project – having a symbol of an ancient oak tree for their party, the Government does not know precisely how many oak trees have been felled in its search for progress. 

Alongside the 15 hectares already destroyed, the Woodland Trust estimates that a total of 108 ancient woods are also at risk of loss or damage. Despite rewilding strategies promised by HS2 Ltd, it will take countless generations to mitigate the destruction of ancient woodland. 


Environmental Impact 

HS2 Ltd does have a plan for replacing lost trees. It claims it will plant up to seven million trees and shrubs “to provide compensation and mitigation measures”. This means the “Phase One scheme will leave behind 30% more wildlife habitats than currently exist”. 

However, the feasibility and time scale of such promises have been called into question. Speaking to Byline Times, Rachel Hackett of The Wildlife Trusts highlighted how ancient woodland is “by its very nature irreplaceable, so an ancient wood that is lost to HS2 is a permanent loss for nature and wildlife”. 

Although trees have grown and regenerated over time, the Wildlife Trust argues that it is “it is the nature of the soils in ancient woodland which are key”.

While planting large numbers of trees provides a simple way of mediating environmental scrutiny, it would appear HS2 LTD may not have sufficiently considered the vast ecological and environmental differences between ancient woodland and newly planted saplings. 

Hackett also raised concerns regarding HS2 Ltd’s ability to quantify its environmental impact. without sufficient understanding and baseline data.

“We are sceptical about HS2’s claim that Phase One will leave behind 30% more wildlife habitats than currently exists and would like to see the detailed evidence that underpins this figure,” she told Byline Times, adding that environmental recovery cannot simply be measured by area or number of trees. 

“Places for wildlife need to be high quality, and losses need to be replaced with like for like,” Hackett continued. “For example, newly planted trees do not support the variety of wildlife found in a mature woodland, nor will they compensate for wildlife which relies on species-rich grassland or heathland affected by HS2”.


Counting the Carbon Costs

A spokesperson from The Woodland Trust also made it clear “the habitat being created in the wake of HS2’s destruction is simply not the same as what is being lost. These new habitats are only at the very start of their life and it will take many decades, centuries even, for them to be delivering benefits in the same manner as those that are to be lost”.

Those benefits include carbon capture. According to the Forestry Commission, older woodland captures far more CO2 than new woodland areas. Although HS2 Ltd’s commitment to planting new trees is a positive step, it will be many generations before planted trees start to replicate the ecological and carbon-reducing benefits of destroyed ancient woodlands. 

HS2 LTD has admitted that its project will not be carbon neutral for at least 120 years. Furthermore, a recently published report by former rail regulator chief, Stephen Glaister, found that HS2 will “yield effectively zero environmental benefits”, especially given the advancements in the electric car market. 

This news comes despite claims from HS2 Ltd that high-speed rail links will help reduce carbon emissions by transferring freight from lorries to trains. It also points to the technology used to construct the roof at Old Oak Common station, which is designed to “reduce carbon.”

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.


A Railway to Nowhere?

Since the establishment of HS2 Ltd by the Labour Government in 2009, the project has faced constant scrutiny for a catalogue of concerns ranging from increasing costs to environmental harm. 

Current figures suggest that the estimated budget is close to £108bn – more than three times greater than the original 2012 forecast. The spiralling budget has led to calls for an inquiry as to whether or not ministers misled Parliament over the costs of the project. 

Questions have also been raised as to whether or not HS2 will even be completed. Phase One is still marked by the Government’s internal major projects authority as “successful delivery in doubt”. Any construction north of Crewe (Phase 2b) has been deemed “unachievable”. 

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