Good news for voles, part 3

(… continued from Good news for voles, part 2, posted on 9 Apr 2017).

D Richard Wolfe had done such a good job of advocacy on behalf of the UK’s barn owl population that when the professional ecologists, in the guise of the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT), appeared before the House of Commons HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee the Trust’s spokesman only felt the need to repeat, in a couple of sentences, the vulnerability that results from the hunting habits of barn owls and the level of the yearly impact on the population as estimated by HS2 Ltd (see footnote 1).

The Trust also indicated that it was seeking an improvement in the assurance offered by the Promoter “that actually ties the promotors (sic) into ensuring that the impact is properly mitigated, brought down to a level where it’s acceptable”. What the Trust was seeking was that HS2 Ltd “will get an independent study undertaken, which will look at suitable areas where nest sites and habitat provision could be provided” (see footnote 2).

When his turn came, the Promoter’s Counsel, James Strachan QC, used the opportunity to provide the “update” for the Committee that had been promised when Mr Wolfe had appeared before them a couple of months previously (see footnote 3). Although Mr Strachan’s report was rather muddled (see footnote 4), I think what he confirmed was that HS2 Ltd had spoken to the Barn Owl Trust and the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), and that the HS2 Barn Owl Action Group (BOAG) had been set up – he didn’t say, but I assume that both of these named organisations are members of this group. He also promised that HS2 Ltd would be “providing a note back to the Committee, on the results of those discussions as to what mitigation further mitigation measures (sic), can be put in place for barn owls” (see footnote 5).

Matters moved to the House of Lords without being resolved: the final report of the Commons Select Committee merely notes that “measures to protect [barn owl and bat] populations by encouraging habitat and foraging shifts are required” (see footnote 6).

When Mr Wolfe appeared in front of the Lords HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee his report on events since his appearance in Committee Room 5 painted a somewhat different picture from the one that Mr Strachan had painted for the Commons Select Committee. Mr Wolfe, who appears to boast close contacts with the Barn Owl Trust, advised the Lords Select Committee that HS2 Ltd had arranged a single meeting with the Barn Owl Trust, and that meeting had taken place in the month following his appearance in Committee Room 5, i.e. October 2015. He reported that following this meeting, at which “mitigation as well as compensation measures were discussed but no commitments made”, the Trust “had heard nothing for over a year” and that contact had only been resumed just before, and “in conjunction with the preparation of”, his Lords petition hearing (see footnote 7).

When BBOWT appeared in front of the Committee a week and a day after Mr Wolfe had been heard, there was some discussion about the outcome of the deliberations of the BOAG – BBOWT confirmed that, as of the date of its hearing, only one meeting of the group had been held. It appears that BBOWT had seen the minutes of the BOAG meeting (see footnote 8), and was able to tell the Committee that “the key recommendation of that group was that habitat restoration [should be] away from the line”. He added “clearly, there’s no point providing habitat within [the Bill limits], because all you’re doing is encouraging barn owls into the area where collision is more likely to occur”. BBOWT also referred to a “dispersal study”: this study was commissioned from the BTO by HS2 Ltd at the behest of the BOAG, but was not available at the time of the hearing (see footnote 9).

The report of the BTO study has since been published and provides a very comprehensive review of barn owl dispersal movements, based upon an analysis of barn owl ringing and recovery data held in the national ring-recovery database. It is a stunningly meticulous piece of work that confirms the key recommendation of the BOAG in concluding that the results of the analysis suggest that “new, high-quality habitat aimed at mitigating negative effects of HS2 on Barn Owls should be located between 3 km and 15 km away from the railway route, depending on the importance placed on minimizing juvenile, as opposed to adult, mortality”. The report also makes some tentative comments about the impacts of barrier and poor quality foraging habitats located near the railway line, but these impacts appear to require further investigation (see footnote 10).

Uppermost in the BBOWT submission was that “there will be a residual impact” in the barn owl population from HS2 that “needs to be addressed” and that there are doubts about whether HS2 Ltd’s proposals in this respect and the formal assurance that had been given to the RSPB are sufficient. In view of this BBOWT was seeking an additional written assurance from the Promoter that would give BBOWT some confidence that the recommendations of the BOAG will find their way into mitigation measures on the ground (see footnote 11).

It emerged that, in a typical act of HS2 Ltd brinkmanship, a Promoter’s letter, containing a suggested assurance, had been received by BBOWT the previous day (see footnote 12). BBOWT did not think that the commitment was strong enough, and was seeking an assurance that required “best endeavours” to be applied in following the recommendations of the BOAG, rather than just “having regard” to them. In a typical session of horse trading in the Committee Room Corridor the compromise “reasonable endeavours” was offered, and that is the form of words used in the High Speed Rail (London – West Midlands) Act 2017: register of undertakings and assurances (see footnote 13).

It is most unfortunate, in my view, that the activities of the HS2 Barn Owl Action Group are apparently being carried out behind closed doors. I can find no record of the proceedings of the Group in the public record: all that we know, concerning its initial meeting only, has come from the evidence given to Parliament by Mr Wolfe and BBOWT, and a promise that has been given by the Department for Transport that “the Promoter will reconvene the Barn Owl action group in January 2017 to discuss how to take forward results from an independent report into the dispersal of this species” (see footnote 14).

Footnotes:

  1. See paragraph 168 of the transcript of the evening session of the House of Commons HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee held on Monday 23rdNovember 2015.
  2. See paragraphs 169 and 170 of the transcript of the evening session of the Commons HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee held on Monday 23rdNovember 2015.
  3. See paragraph 479 of the transcript of the afternoon session of the Commons HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee held on Wednesday 9thSeptember 2015.
  4. See paragraph 196 of the transcript of the evening session of the Commons HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee held on Monday 23rdNovember 2015.
  5. There is no record on the Commons Select Committee’s website of any such report being received. In the exhibit A697(4) in the evidence bundle that BBOWT submitted to the House of Lords Select Committee, BBOWR states “As far as we are aware, no note was provided”.
  6. See paragraph 307 in the publication Second Special Report of Session 2015-16, House of Commons Select Committee on the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill, 22ndFebruary 2016.
  7. See paragraph 409 of the transcript of the afternoon session of the House of Lords HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee held on Tuesday 15thNovember 2016.
  8. Although I can find no trace of these minutes being placed in the public domain.
  9. See paragraph 39 of the transcript of the morning session of the House of Lords HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016. Readers of my blog Compensation culture, part 6 (posted 8 Mar 2017) will be aware of my contention that HS2 Ltd appears reluctant to create habitat outside of the Bill limits, and so I fear that the BOAG’s recommendation may be resisted by HS2 Ltd.
  10. See paragraph 6 in the Summary section on page 5 of the paper Pringle H, Siriwardena G and Toms M, Informing best practice for mitigating and enhancement measures for Barn Owls, BTO Research Report 692, British Trust for Ornithology, Thetford, 2017.
  11. See paragraphs 35 and 36 of the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016.
  12. The letter is exhibits P5699(1) and P5699(2) in the bundle of evidence submitted by the Promoter for the BBOWT hearing. The wording of the assurance, as proposed in the letter, is:
    “The Promoter will require the nominated undertaker, where reasonably practical and where they can be carried out without affecting the safe operation and effective management of the new railway, to have regard to the measures proposed in the barn owl action plan when developing barn owl mitigation measures during detailed design. These measures will be informed by the independent dispersal study carried out by the British Trust for Ornithology, as recommended by the HS2 barn owl action group.”
  13. See paragraphs 42 and 43 of the transcript of the morning session of the Lords HS2 Phase 1 Select Committee held on Wednesday 23rdNovember 2016. The assurance is entry 2617 in the register.
  14. See paragraph 94 in the publication House of Lords Select Committee on the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill: Promoter’s Response to the Select Committee’s Special Report of Session 2016-17, Cm9396, Department for Transport, January 2017.

Important Note: The records of the proceedings of the Lords and Commons HS2 Phase 1 Select Committees 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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