Good news for voles, part 1

I have been fortunate to experience some balmy late summer evenings on the North Norfolk coast, where my agenda has been a walk around the lanes and footpaths of whichever village my bed is located in, followed by a pint, or two, of a delicious nectar that is brewed across the County border in Southwold, and a superb dinner in a local hostelry – and you can dine very well, and with plenty of choice, along, and a little away from, the A149 coast road.

During a number of these expeditions I have been lucky enough to encounter a hunting barn owl, quartering the fields. At one location – the Lifeboat Inn at Thornham – there is even a chance that you can watch an owl whilst drinking your pint! There is something mesmerising about seeing such a ghostly apparition, flying low and silently, methodically searching an area by flying over it, back and forth, sometimes hovering and sometimes dropping lower, until it pounces on some unfortunate small mammal in the grass – bad news for voles, but a great sight for lovers of our natural world.

It is this characteristic method of hunting that makes barn owls vulnerable to becoming a road casualty: if a road falls within the hunting area, a low-flying barn owl is likely to cross that road at below car roof height, inviting a collision. At least an owl has some chance against a car, but if the owl, weighing less than half a kilogramme is crossing a high-speed railway line, rather than a country road, and meets a train that could weigh approaching one thousand metric tonnes travelling at 300km/hr plus, it stands very little hope of surviving; and even the buffeting from the air turbulence around the train may be sufficient to ensure the demise of any owl in the vicinity.

As I reported in my blog Compensation culture, part 6 (posted 8 Mar 2017) much of the new habitat creation proposed by HS2 Ltd is grassland and scrub located near to the HS2 track. This will be, in effect, a nature reserve for voles and other small mammals, and will be first-rate barn owl hunting territory. Unintentionally, it seems, compensatory habitat could be the bait in a perfect death trap for barn owls created by the HS2 Ltd environmentalists.

Image: The Barn Owl Trust

HS2 Ltd estimates that “on a precautionary basis, there may be loss of up to 52 pairs of barn owl [per year]” from the combined effects of loss of habitat to HS2 construction and collisions with trains. The Company equates this to “approximately 1% of the UK population” and regards this impact as “significant at the national level” (see footnote 1).

At the time that the Phase 1 hybrid Bill was lodged with Parliament, the HS2 Ltd response to this threat to our barn owl population, as expressed in the Environmental Statement (ES), was (see footnote 2):

“To offset the likely loss of barn owl from the vicinity of the Proposed Scheme, opportunities to provide barn owl nesting boxes in areas greater than 1.5km from the route will be explored with local landowners. As the availability of nesting sites is a limiting factor for this species, the implementation of these measures would be likely to increase numbers of barn owl within the wider landscape and thus offset the adverse effect. If the proposed mitigation measures for barn owl are implemented through liaison with landowners, the residual effect on barn owl would be reduced to a level that is not significant.”

The Barn Owl Trust’s response to this proposal was to accuse the authors of the ES of a “lack of relevant knowledge”. In categorising the proposal as “clearly inadequate”, the Trust points specifically to the failure of the ES to address “the long-term impact of increased annual mortality of dispersing juvenile Barn Owls” and “any measures aimed at preventing owl-train collisions”. The Trust response adds (see footnote 3):

“The idea that the provision of nest boxes over 1.5 km from the route can effectively mitigate the impact of HS2 on Barn Owls (‘offset the adverse effect’) is ill-founded.”

Given this very unpromising start, I am relieved to be able to report that discussion before both select committees has resulted in HS2 Ltd talking to the Barn Owl Trust, and the former giving a limited undertaking to follow independent expert advice in providing mitigation, but my account of that will have to wait for the next, and the concluding, parts of this blog.

(To be continued …)

Footnotes:

  1. See paragraph 8.1.57 in Volume 3: Route-wide effects of HS2 Phase One Environmental Statement, HS2 Ltd, November 2013.
  2. See paragraph 8.1.58 in Volume 3 of the Phase 1 Environmental Statement.
  3. See the webpage High Speed 2 – The Barn Owl Trust’s response. The emphasis on “any” and “ill-founded” is in the original.

 

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