Transplant operation, part 1

As long ago as the spring of 2012 I reported the doubts that many environmentalists have of the value of the translocation of ancient woodland soils when employed, as HS2 Ltd proposes, to “inject biodiversity” into woodland newly planted as compensation for ancient woodland lost to development (see footnote 1).

These doubts were explained to the House of Commons HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee early in 2016, when the Woodland Trust, clearly a fount of expert knowledge in matters concerned with woodland of all types, gave evidence in support of its petition (see footnote 2). It appears that despite the care with which the Trust’s expert witness, its Senior Conservation Advisor Richard Barnes, explained to the Committee the Trust’s concerns and requests in connection with the proposed use of this technique for HS2, there is no reference, however slight, to the issue in the Committee’s published reports.

No doubt as a result of this apparent demonstration of indifference by the Commons, the matter was again on the agenda when Mr Barnes took the witness seat in Committee Room 4 to give evidence on behalf of the Trust to the House of Lords HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee. The Trust’s concerns with the proposed utilisation of the translocation of ancient woodland soils were carefully explained to this second parliamentary committee, following the bullet points listed on exhibit A691(12), as follows:

Translocation cannot recreate ancient woodland

This appears to be something on which both the Trust and the Promoter agree (see footnote 3). Mr Barnes referred to it as “a salvage operation … at best, when there’s no other options available”; a viewpoint that he said was shared by Natural England (see footnote 4). But Mr Barnes did indicate a hint of a difference with the Promoter by referring to an exhibit “where they talk about ancient woodland planting in their evidence”, commenting that “unfortunately, that is just not true … you’re not recreating ancient woodland” (see footnote 5) – I have to say, though, that I have been unable to corroborate this point, since all of the published Promoter’s exhibits that I have been able to check clearly distinguish between “ancient woodland” being destroyed and “new woodlands” being created.

It is an engineering operation to move soil and vegetation from one site to another

Mr Barnes referred to a photograph included on exhibit A691(12), which shows a translocation operation in progress with the soil being moved by a large mechanical digger. He spelt out that the “soil is scrapped off by diggers, transported in dumpers, if lucky, straight to the site without any further storage and mixing elsewhere, and then it’s spread out again by diggers”. He contrasted this reality with how one might transplant some bulbs in a garden; carefully with a trowel (see footnote 6).

Translocation has a narrow window of opportunity – this timing should dictate the engineering programme, not vice versa

Mr Barnes emphasised that the time of year when translocation procedures are carried out can affect the degree of success of the operation, referring to what he called “a narrow window of opportunity”. He added that if the operation was to include the transplanting of coppice stools, then this required a different window to the translocation of soil. He noted that there had “been too many projects where we’ve seen that the translocation has just fitted around the engineering and not vice versa, it hasn’t been done at the right time of year” (see footnote 7).

On these last two points, which I regard as issues of translocation methodology, the Promoter’s Lead Counsel, Tim Mould QC, referred Mr Barnes to a letter that had been sent to the Trust by HS2 Ltd a few days before the date of the hearing (see footnote 8). This letter included the wording of an assurance that was proposed by the Promoter that promised “a clear plan and methodology for each area of Ancient Woodland soil to be translocated and that the nominated undertaker would be required to “engage with the Woodland trust in the development of those arrangements”. Unfortunately we didn’t get to hear from Mr Barnes whether this assurance would satisfy the Trust and, in fairness, the Trust hadn’t had much time to consider it – par for the course with HS2 Ltd, I fear.

Translocation is not a proven technique

Mr Barnes told the Committee that, although the translocation of ancient woodland soils had been tried on rail and road transport projects in recent times “there has not been any monitoring or management that has been set out to say what happens if something goes wrong”. He identified as the “best example” as a wood on the A2/M2 link road and widening scheme, where there had been “some reasonable initial results”. But, even here, the Trust had “have not had any further publications or knowledge of surveys being done” and so “don’t know whether any of this habitat has been created or is succeeding” (see footnote 9).

Mr Barnes said that the Trust’s research indicated that “you will get the movement of what we call an ‘inocula’ of some of the soil microbes and fungi and you will get [growth of] certain bulbs and seeds, like bluebells and wood anemones, those ones that will survive the process” (see footnote 10).

Commitment is required from the nominated undertaker to manage and monitor new woodland created with translocated soil in perpetuity

Mr Barnes identified two reasons why it was necessary for new woodland inoculated with translocated soils to be managed and its progress monitored “in perpetuity”. Firstly, he intimated that you couldn’t just leave nature to itself and “you’ll get a good woodland in 50 to 100 years, with some of the things coming forward that were in the original woodland soil translocated”. Secondly, he said that he would “like to see some good science done … on what does happen to ancient woodland soils that are translocated” (see footnote 11).

He told the Committee that this forward commitment “hasn’t happened with the other examples often cited of HS1 or the Channel Tunnel Rail Link” (see footnote 12). It would appear from comments made in the hearing that HS2 intends to do better than this, and that arrangements will be put in place for new woodland to be managed for 50 years (see footnote 13). Whilst Mr Barnes welcomed this as “higher than some other schemes we’ve seen”, it remained his view that “in perpetuity is the ideal solution” and that this was “a possibility through [the use of] conservation covenants” (see footnote 14).

Mr Mould was not, it appears, able to offer Mr Barnes any improvement on 50 years, but did, at least, try to reassure him that things would be done well. He reminded Mr Barnes that there would be an ecological review group, “whose principal purpose is to monitor the performance of mitigation measures once the railway has been constructed and is in operation” – and Mr Barnes confirmed that the Trust had been “invited onto that group” and that this group “will be receiving reports of monitoring as the proposals go forward”. Mr Mould also advised Mr Barnes that Clause 50 of the hybrid Bill enabled the Secretary of State to “impose and to enforce environmental covenants which are positive in nature and thus overcome the usual legal difficulties over securing the performance of positive covenants against successes in title”. The silk added that this provision would help “to address some of the problems that can otherwise arise in maintaining compliance with covenants over a lengthy period of time” (see footnote 15).

(To be concluded …)

Footnotes:

  1. See my blog The answer lies in the soil (posted 8 Mar 2012). For readers not familiar with this technique, I should explain that topsoil removed from a site being excavated within ancient woodland, which will contain seeds, bulbs and microorganisms associated with that woodland, is retained and subsequently spread on the surface of a site where new woodland is being created. The proponents of the technique claim that this enhances the biodiversity of the new woodland.
  2. Reported in my blog Not necessarily a good thing, part 3 (posted 19 Jul 2016).
  3. For example, see the recognition by Promoter’s Counsel recorded in paragraph 416 of the transcript of the morning session of the House of Commons HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee held on Wednesday 3rdFebruary 2016.
  4. See paragraph 324 in the transcript of the morning session of the House of Lords HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  5. See paragraph 334 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  6. See paragraph 325 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  7. See paragraph 326 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  8. This letter, dated 18thNovember 2016, is exhibits P5517(1) to P5517(3), inclusive, and may be found on pages 358 to 360 in the Promoter’s bundle for the Woodland Trust hearing.
  9. See paragraph 300 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  10. See paragraph 336 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  11. See paragraphs 330 and 334 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rd November 2016.
  12. See paragraph 328 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  13. For example, see paragraph 331 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  14. See paragraph 332 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  15. See paragraphs 511 to 515 in the transcript of the morning session of the Lords Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.

Acknowledgement: Exhibit A691(12) has been extracted from the bundle of evidence submitted to the Lords HS2 Select Committee by the Woodland Trust and published on the website of the Lords HS2 Select Committee.

Important Note: The record of the proceedings of the Lords HS2 Select Committee from which the quotes reproduced in this blog have been taken are uncorrected transcripts of evidence, which are not yet an approved formal record. Neither witnesses nor Members have had the opportunity to correct the record in such instances, and it may therefore be subject to changes being made in the light of any such corrections being requested.

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