Simon says …

The natural environment and wildlife, part 1

I am a great fan of the sports reporter and wildlife journalist Simon Barnes. When he writes on the natural environment and wildlife he seems to express a great deal of sense; I wouldn’t claim the expertise to pass judgement on his sports reporting, though.

Simon writes a weekly Saturday column in The Times, under the title Simon Barnes Wild Notebook (available on subscription only here). On Saturday 12th March he devoted his piece to the effects of HS2 on the natural environment.

In this article he summarises the impact of the route design that has been produced by HS2 Ltd in the following words:

And what they seem to have done is to find the finest wild places that lie between London and Birmingham and join ‘em up. The proposed route will take you, very fast indeed, through four Wildlife Trusts reserves, ten Sites of Special Scientific Interest and more than 50 chunks of ancient woodland.

Simon’s view is that wildlife sites such as these “are seriously excellent for people” and he reflects that “we need wild places more and more with every passing year”. However the problem with HS2 goes farther than the damage that it will inflict upon wildlife sites and the effect that this will have upon the wellbeing of people; the fear is that HS2 will impact upon biodiversity. As Simon explains in his article:

When you split a chunk of ancient woodland, you don’t simply have two smaller woods. You have two woods that are inferior as well as smaller. Smaller woods will, by definition, have much less biodiversity.

By reducing the size of a habitat, you swap one viable population for two island populations. There are no small disasters on an island: when a single thing goes wrong, you are likely to lose your population. An island population lacks what footballers call bouncebackability. This railway line will fragment populations of birds, bats and butterflies: a process that tends to leads to local extinctions.

Simon gives, as an example of a species that may be under threat from HS2, the Black Hairstreak, a “rare and elusive butterfly” that is a “species confined to 40 clumps of blackthorn in the woods of the Midlands”. He goes on to say:

The best way to protect our wild creatures is to take our wild places and join them up. The HS2 railway will take our wild places and fragment them.

When I look at the map showing the HS2 route past my village of Cubbington, I can see all too well what Simon Barnes means. We have farmland managed under the Environmental Stewardship Scheme which links two important wildlife habitats: our ancient woodland and our river. The farmland, with wide wildflower margins to the fields and well-managed venerable hedgerows populated by many different plant species, provides the wildlife corridors that are essential to creating biodiversity. But what the HS2 map shows is the railway severing many of these hedgerows and blocking these vital wildlife corridors.

Back to Simon Barnes again:

What is more important, getting to Birmingham frightfully quickly, or a woodland measured in millennia?

This is one of those moments when we have a chance to think about what kind of country we want our great-grandchildren to live in. Do we want them to go to and from Birmingham really quickly? Or do we want them to walk the dog beneath 500-year old oaks and stroll with their own children past stands of blackthorn lit up by June sunlight where Black Hairstreaks set about the joyous task of making more Black Hairstreaks?

Stretching back beyond living memory, the children of Cubbington have enjoyed the benefits of growing up with a rich natural environment on their doorstep. It will be very sad if their children were to be denied these benefits by HS2.


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