The view from Victoria Street

The natural environment and wildlife, part 5

I suspect that you can’t see much green countryside from the offices of HS2 Ltd at 55 Victoria Street; probably a distant glimpse of St James’s Park is the best that can be hoped for. This detachment from the natural environment may account for the differences in the assessment of the effects that HS2 will have on biodiversity between the environmentalists working for HS2 Ltd and practical environmentalists such as Stephen Trotter and Simon Barnes.

The views of the former are set out in the Appraisal of Sustainability for HS2 and this document indicates that there is certainly a marked reluctance to accept the plain truth that HS2 is likely to be very bad news for the natural environment.

Take for example paragraph 2.1.19 on page 6 of Volume 1 (available here), which says:

The proposed new railway would present a significant opportunity to reinforce and enhance biodiversity. It would provide a green corridor to be colonised by plants and animals, and could link with and form connections between existing habitats. There would, however, be an adverse affect on a number of sites.

Aside from the final sentence, which is plainly the truth, it is really difficult to believe that HS2 Ltd is promoting a concrete strip with some trees planted along it as some sort of wildlife haven. I have searched through the Appraisal of Sustainability, but have failed to find any justification for this claim. I also tried to get some clarification from an environmental spokesperson from HS2 Ltd at one of the roadshows, but had no success.

The “green corridor” image of the HS2 trackway painted by HS2 Ltd is in marked contrast to what Stephen Trotter said in his paper What ecological effects might HS2 have on wildlife and wild places? and that I reported in my blogs of 24 Jul and 28 Jul. As a reminder, one of the things that he said was:

The linear nature of the route will present an almost complete physical barrier to the movement of a large number of species across the line.

And, also:

Linear infrastructure can provide opportunities for a range of problematic and aggressive species to invade and exploit newly exposed habitat opportunities along the route. Some of the species attracted may be desirable, but species composition can change as a result. For example, populations of weed plants may migrate along ballast and edges whilst birds of prey and carrion feeders may be attracted to areas beside linear infrastructure due to availability of kills. This can potentially result in changes in the presence and abundance of other species nearby. Some desirable species may be exposed to increased risk of mortality as they attempt to cross the route to exploit adjacent habitats (e.g. owls including barn owl, birds of prey).

Now I don’t completely reject the possibility that the “verges” of the HS2 trackway can offer some habitat for wildlife and have the example in mind of motorway verges hosting good populations of mice and voles and the birds of prey that feed on them. However, much will depend upon what species are planted by HS2 Ltd and how the vegetation management policy will operate, including how herbicides will be used under the vegetation management regime.

I have had a couple of conversations with HS2 Ltd representatives on the subject of planting. I have been told both times that HS2 Ltd plan to use native species. This has prompted me to remark that the great majority of native species of trees and shrubs are deciduous and to ask how this can be reconciled with the “leaves on the line problem” that requires a vegetation management regime to be in force. This is as far as the conversation went on both occasions. Like so many other issues, I don’t think that HS2 Ltd has got very far on thinking this one through.

However, I am encouraged by what HS2 Ltd has said in paragraph 8.6.2 on page 91 of Volume 1 of the Appraisal of Sustainability:

Were the project to progress, continued design would seek to further protect habitats and wildlife, and opportunities would be sought to create new habitat and build on existing habitat, for example by extending or linking habitats along the route. Impacts on and protection of named protected species, along with wildlife communities generally, would be a consideration of EIA.

I think this means that, if heaven forbid HS2 is built, then a very small fraction of the pile of money that it will cost will be available to be spent on environmental projects, such as the ‘living landscape’ initiatives mentioned by Stephen Trotter in his paper. If this happens, and if it is done intelligently in conjunction with local environmental bodies such as the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust, then it will offer some compensation for the damage that HS2 will do. However, this is likely to be small relief in comparison with the environmental harm that the project will cause.

One thing is very clear from the documentation produced by HS2 Ltd for the consultation; no really detailed work has been done on evaluating the effects that HS2 will have on the natural environment and, as a consequence, HS2 Ltd has only a superficial understanding of the extent of these effects. In his paper Stephen Trotter outlines what work needs to be done:

It is important that a comprehensive ecological survey of the route is carried out over an appropriate period of time (this may take several years of intensive effort); not only to pick up resident species but also to detect those which may range over extensive areas and may only be present for very short periods. Even though some species of concern might only be present intermittently, the impact of infrastructure may be critical at points in a life cycle and could determine the wider viability of populations in the adjacent landscape. It is important to understand the complex interrelationships of how species interact with the landscapes and habitat patches through which HS2 will pass.

In the quote from paragraph 8.6.2 of Volume 1 of the Appraisal of Sustainability that I have reproduced above, HS2 Ltd refers to “EIA”; this is the full environmental impact assessment that HS2 Ltd has promised will be carried out following any decision to go ahead with HS2. This will be an essential step in trying to understand the impact that HS2 will have on our natural environment and in deciding what mitigation measures will be most effective and appropriate. Stephen Trotter’s words above indicate that this will be a difficult and protracted task and will, no doubt, require significant resources to be employed.

We can only hope that, if HS2 Ltd is called upon to carry out this task, it will do a proper job.

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