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Manchester Metropolitan University Criticised for ‘Boasting About Sustainability While Allowing the Destruction of Biodiversity’

The Uni is allowing invasive ground investigation surveys which critics say could disturb or even destroy active birds’ nests protected under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act

Manchester Metropolitan University. Photo: 4k-Clips / Alamy
Manchester Metropolitan University is the seventh-best university for biological studies in the UK. Photo: 4k-Clips / Alamy

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Manchester Metropolitan University has been criticised for allowing invasive ground investigation surveys which could disturb or even destroy active birds’ nests and will involve heavy machinery working within recommended exclusion zones without appropriate protected species licenses. 

According to locals, Ryebank Fields in south Manchester is a rewilded oasis for urban wildlife, a much loved resource for the local community and a valuable carbon sink. 

But once planning permission has been granted, the university (MMU), which ranks as the seventh best University for Biological Sciences in the UK, plans to sell the land to its preferred developers, Step Places and Southway Housing, who will clear the 10-acre site to make way for 120 new homes.

Ryebank Fields in south Manchester is a rewilded oasis for urban wildlife, a much loved resource for the local community but is being cleared to make way for 120-houses. Photo: Friends of Ryebank Fields.

A website set up to promote the Ryebank housing development and a letter sent to residents said the works, which are due to start imminently and are expected to last up to six weeks, will include driving steel tubes into the ground, drilling bore holes, digging trial pits and dropping weights on to steel rods buried up to 6m in the ground. Potential bird nesting habitat will also be cleared from various locations around the site to allow access for heavy machinery and survey equipment. 

All wild birds and their nests are protected by law under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act.

MMU, Step Places and Southway Housing refused to comment directly to Byline Times, and replied via PR company Lexington Communications, which said “no active bird nests have been recorded on site to date”.

However, during a short walk just after dawn earlier this week ten species of bird were recorded singing and defending breeding territories. Professional ecologists volunteering free of charge for Friends of Ryebank Fields, a campaign group set up to save the site from development, say that they have strong evidence that there are active nests in the area which would be disturbed or destroyed by the works. 

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The PR firm also said that although Natural England, the Government body tasked with promoting nature conservation and protecting biodiversity, had not issued any licenses to legally allow disturbance of protected species on the site, “all exclusion zones will be applied and respected when the site investigation works are carried out”.

Images and footage seen by Byline Times of similar works commissioned by MMU at Ryebank Fields in 2019 shows heavy machinery working inside the recommended protected species exclusion zones. Other images show core samples, some of which were later found to be contaminated with asbestos, littering the site after contractors left. 

Sam Easterby-Smith, Green Party parliamentary candidate for Manchester Withington in the forthcoming general election, knows Ryebank Fields well and is adamant that the ground surveys should be carried out in full compliance of environmental regulations and best practice. 

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“Any vegetation works and clearance should certainly be avoided during the official bird nesting season from February to August. It would be extremely disappointing if they were to fail in their environmental duties,” he said, adding: “While I absolutely recognise the need for more housing, particularly affordable housing, there are other, more appropriate sites nearby.”  

Councillor Richard Kilpatrick, parliamentary candidate for the Liberal Democrats, said if contractors are ignoring protected species exclusion zones, “this is a serious act of environmental vandalism, the type of which we were given cast-iron guarantees would not happen on this site”.  

Kilpatrick also expressed his concern that the work was happening at the wrong time of the year for nesting birds and is likely to disturb contaminated land.

After 14 years of successive Conservative Governments failing to address biodiversity loss, the 2023 State of Nature report, a collaboration between environmental NGOs, academic institutions and government agencies including Natural England, concluded that the UK is now one of the most nature depleted countries in the world. 

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However, the protection of sites like Ryebank Fields, where many of the “at risk” species highlighted in the State of Nature report, such as birds, amphibians and reptiles and land mammals can be found, has often been labelled as standing in the way of progress by successive Conservative Governments.

Ex Conservative Prime Ministers, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss both consistently sided with developers and were criticised by environmental groups for promising to water down wildlife legislation designed to protect the environment in order to “stream line” the planning process. 

More recently, Rishi Sunak has been accused of abandoning the environment by The Wildlife Trusts – a federation of 46 independent wildlife conservation charities covering the whole of the UK –  and playing politics with the twin crisis of nature and climate change by suggesting we can’t have new homes without first ditching environmental protections.

The Conservative Party’s attempts at normalising biodiversity loss are compounded by an increase in shifting baseline syndrome (SBS). Also described as ‘environmental generational amnesia’, SBS is where, due to a lack of experience, memory and/or knowledge, what many consider to be a normal or healthy environment today, previous generations would consider to be degraded. Many conservationists and scientists now recognise SBS as a significant driver for the continued loss of biodiversity in the UK. 

Universities recognise that they have an important in role to play in educating their students about biodiversity loss and MMU’s website says it is currently in the process of “rewilding” its campus. It has also recently posted about being part of the No Mow May initiative which encourages allowing amenity grassland to grow wild in May to support  pollinators like bees and butterflies.

In a message to potential students on its website, MMU states, “We’ve built sustainability into everything we do – into our business operations, employment practices and into the very fabric of our buildings… from the day you join us to the day you graduate, you’ll find that sustainability is a big part of life at Manchester Met.” MMU Business School also hosts an annual Sustainability Festival which celebrates the work of Manchester’s local communities, organisations and activists. 


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Sarah Benjamins from Friends of Ryebank Fields says the University is guilty of greenwashing and branded it hypocritical for boasting about sustainability on campus while at the same time allowing the destruction of biodiversity and disturbance of wildlife at Ryebank Fields. She also commented that “the timing of the works shows a disregard for nature, does not follow best practice and could result in wildlife crimes being committed.” 

Friends of Ryebank Fields are calling for the site to be designated as a Local Green Space and to be recognised and protected as part of the Greater Manchester Nature Recovery Network. Their recent offer to buy the site received no replies from MMU.   

A spokesperson for the group confirmed that a team of local residents and wildlife campaigners had set up a rota for the duration of the works and will be monitoring contractors with a view to reporting any potential wildlife crimes. 

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