Kate on Conservation

HS2 and the UK’s post-lockdown challenges

Chris Packham and Kate on Conservation at Crush Cruelty protest march

This morning I woke to the gentle, repetitive sound of thud, thud, thudding. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I sat up as the noise accelerated to an aggressive pounding – no surprise then, when I padded across the room and peeled back the curtains to find a fierce shower of raindrops beating against the glass.

rain-on-window

They say ‘After every storm, comes a rainbow’; or at least that’s the motto that has become firmly attached to the UK’s experience of lockdown. As I looked out across the rain soaked lawn I could see our daughter’s own coloured pencil rainbow blowing backwards and forwards on the railings that it remains tied to, in front of our house.

I can’t recall a time in my life where I’ve really experienced feeling so utterly on the cusp of something, only to feel as though I’m watching it disappear entirely from view – if this rain has come to wash away our rainbow; it may just be doing a perfect job.

Poppy-image-by-Kate-on-Conservation

A Green New Deal?

After weeks of social media feeds filled with our nationwide quarantine remedy of ‘Vitamin Nature’ [#VitaminN]—concluding with a bright and natureful month of ‘30 Days Wild’ this June – it would seem that many of us had gained a newfound love of the natural world and green spaces during our toughest days of the Covid-19 pandemic.

So when the month ended; taking with it a large portion of our remaining lockdown regulations, it felt as though maybe that rainbow was in sight as many people geared up (quite literally) for July 4’s ‘Super Saturday’.

For many in the nature sector; however, on the 30th June the clouds came rolling in. To the mantra of ‘Build, Build, Build!’, the Government pledged that billions of pounds would be used to rebuild the economy in a New Deal putting ‘jobs and infrastructure’ at the centre of the Government’s economic growth strategy.

Read as: building new roads, houses, rail tracks; everything and anything that can be built fast.

Commenting on the Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s speech, Craig Bennett, chief executive of The Wildlife Trusts called for nature to be at the heart of economic recovery – not simply an ‘add-on’.

“Nature has provided people with much solace during this crisis – and we know that we need nature not just for health and wellbeing, but also because restored natural habitats can capture carbon,” he explained. “The Government has announced billions [of pounds] for road building projects and just £40 million for nature.”

In his speech on that final day of June, the Prime Minister made specific reference to building fast and removing wildlife that presents an obstacle – a move that wildlife organisations and conservationists are concerned would jeopardise species such as dolphins and newts.

To clarify, Mr Johnson singled out that “Newt-counting delays are a massive drag on the prosperity of this country”.

A Green Economy

Little over a week later, on the 8th July, the Prime Minister gave a further announcement, of £3 billion in green schemes to help the UK “Build Back Greener”.

Essentially, ‘building back greener’ would incorporate energy efficiency, to boost jobs across the UK, cut consumer bills and reduce carbon emissions as part of the coronavirus recovery plan.

But for many campaigners, Wednesday’s economic update was welcome as simply “down payment”, but does not measure up to what is needed for the UK to meet its 2050 net-zero carbon target and restore nature.

woodland trust Climate fightback field

If the Government is serious about keeping its manifesto pledge to develop [quote] “the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth”, it must step up its ambition and lead the world in delivering a green economic recovery,” The Wildlife Trusts’s Craig Bennett explains.

Without being supported by long-term funding for nature’s recovery and restoration projects on land and sea across the UK, it would seem this initial investment will do little to help the natural spaces we leaned on so readily in recent times.

A Green Recovery

The UN Convention on Biological Diversity calls for at least 30% of land and seas to be covered by wildlife-rich habitat to tackle the climate and ecological emergency – and while the eyes of the world will be on the UK next year as it takes the presidency of the G7 and hosts the COP26 climate conference – it’s important to remember that caring for nature and wild spaces is AS VITAL a part of ‘Building Back Better’ as green energy is.

That’s pretty much where we, so-called ‘Team Nature’, come in. Putting nature at the heart of our economic recovery is falling at the wayside as the Government pushes to meet its legally binding target to cut greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

Of course, this target is incredibly important in the fight against climate change, but to reach it at the expense of wildlife and natural spaces, such as ancient woodlands, simply feels like a case of giving with the left hand and taking back with the right. This certainly feels like the case when £106 billion is to be spent on the controversial HS2 rail.

As The Wildlife Trusts’s Craig Bennett, explains, “Serious investment in nature could provide a green recovery which addresses the twin crises of our age – climate change and loss of the natural world…Instead, the Government have chosen to spend billions of pounds on roads which will take us in precisely the wrong direction and mean that we keep lurching from one crisis to another.”  

Call to action for nature

A number of influential conservationists have called for action among other environmentalists, nature enthusiasts and members of the public to petition and write to the Government to demand more for wildlife.

I chatted to BBC Springwatch digital presenter, Hannah Stitfall, about her reaction to the announcements of the last couple of weeks.

BBC-presenter-Hannah-Stitfall
Hannah Stitfall, credit: instagram.com/hannahstitfall/

“It is not new news that we are currently in an ecological emergency. An emergency that we created, and one only we can solve,” she explained

“The Government’s new deal of ‘Build, Build, Build’ looks solely towards the continued destruction of our precious habitats, which will in turn lead to the displacement and then certain death of our already suffering wildlife. This is not how we move forward.” 

Her reaction was to immediately set to work by rallying several well-known campaigners to make the following video:

Hannah explained to me; “Our Government has in no fewer words proposed that our wildlife and environmental protection [i.e. ‘newt surveys’] pose some sort of threat to economic growth. This is fundamentally wrong.”

“Thoughts, actions and attitudes like this are the driving force behind this ecological crisis in the first place. Have we learnt nothing? Conserving our environment and the processes that the natural world provide us should be top of our priorities, but tragically they are not.”

“We must change our relationship with the natural world before it is too late, not only for our wildlife, but also for ourselves,” she added.

As multiple threads tie together into one inseparable knot, this week we also saw a timely presence from activists concerned about the environmental scar that High Speed rail construction threatens to leave on the UK’s irreplaceable meadows, designated ancient woodlands and internationally important wetlands.

To rewind slightly, I’m referring to HS2; the new high speed railway linking up London, the Midlands and the North; that’s construction aims to shave mere minutes off of journey time and presents great risks to wildlife such as barn owls, badgers, and precious plants like the endangered lizard orchid.

‘Team Nature’ rallies against HS2 rail

On the same day that Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced his mediocre spending plans for a ‘Green New Deal’ that not only dismisses wildlife, but directly implicates wildlife surveys as economic obstacles; naturalist Chris Packham CBE took his fight against the controversial HS2 rail scheme to the Court of Appeal.

Chris Packham and Kate on Conservation at Crush Cruelty protest march
Chris Packham and Kate on Conservation

Chris heeded the call to try to stop the irreversible destruction and biodiversity loss to 50 ancient woodland sites, 10 sites of special scientific interest, and 130 wildlife sites that the HS2 construction plan threatens to leave in its wake.

On 4th February, after months of a “Stop and Rethink” campaign, a letter from The Wildlife Trusts was delivered to 10 Downing Street containing over 66,000 signatures from people asking the Prime Minister to stop and re-think HS2 plans. It highlighted the huge environmental risks that HS2 poses, and asked that the impact on nature be properly assessed as a matter of urgency. 

HS2-protest-duke-ingram-and-peter-eagan
My dear friend Duke Ingram and Peter Egan join HS2 protestors in summer 2019

In spite of this; and a further 42,000 comments handed over by The Woodland Trust — including 7,000 handwritten responses condemning the potential loss of ancient woodlands and thousands of trees which will be impacted or felled to make way for the line – the Government gave the green light to the High Speed 2 rail project just a week later, on February 11th.

The move prompted instant calls for a redesign of the plan, referencing a report published by The Wildlife Trusts (and including data from the Woodland Trust) titled; ‘What’s the damage? Why HS2 will cost nature too much’), which presented the most comprehensive assessment of potential environmental damage to date.

[A full timeline of HS2 can be seen here.]

Nikki Williams, The Wildlife Trusts’ director of campaigns and policy, expressed her concern at the time that the HS2 works were given the go-ahead without acknowledging the devastating impact on the hundreds of precious wild places and the wildlife that depends on them – that lie in the path of the route.

“Nature is paying too high a price for HS2… Green and sustainable transport is vital, but the climate emergency will not be solved by making the nature crisis worse,” she said.

HS2 issues and legal battles

Early March – in a move described by the Woodland Trust as “smacking of a cowboy operation, not a Government infrastructure project” – HS2 Ltd (the company behind the construction) was caught using pest controllers to scare birds away from nesting.

It seems as though we barely had a chance to react before the Covid-19 lockdown took hold, to find out why HS2 had employed a pest control contractor to fly hawks over the Warwickshire’s Broadwells Wood to deter birds from nesting when A) it is illegal for anyone to intentionally damage or destroy a nest whilst it is being built or in use, and B) work was not due to take place on the site before late autumn, when the wood becomes dormant.

Lockdown brought with it its own set of controversies – while most of the nation’s workforce stepped down and stayed home to protect the NHS, many expressed shock that HS2’s construction was categorised alongside the duties of keyworkers by also being deemed ‘essential’.

It’s no exaggeration to suggest that that shock became heart-break to nature lovers witnessing the destruction of 400-year-old woodlands full of nature – including nesting birds, active badger setts and swathes of bluebells – at a time when they should have been protected.

Another blow would come in those early days of UK quarantine, this time when Chris Packham issued proceedings to challenge the decision by the Secretary of State for Transport and the Prime Minister to go ahead with Phase 1 of HS2. 

HS2 Hearing

The TV presenter went to the High Court in April seeking an emergency injunction to stop works he claimed would cause destruction or “irreversible and irreparable loss” to ancient woodland sites.

A response to my own letter to my local MP. Click to expand.

The court sat as a two-judge Divisional Court with the hearing conducted via Skype.

Evidence was submitted to the High Court in support of the case from the RSPB and the Woodland Trust explaining that all active nests and eggs are fully protected by law from intentional damage or destruction, and that some of the trees due to be felled would contain nesting birds of conservation concern, such as the lesser spotted woodpecker.

Lesser spotted woodpecker. Photo credit: Kurt Bouda

The Woodland Trust also noted that HS2 Ltd’s plans to translocate ancient woodland soils to other sites presented a flawed attempt to mitigate the loss of vital habitat when there is very little evidence that actually it works – especially during such an ecologically active time as spring.

Chris said ahead of the hearing: “Unbelievably in the midst of a human tragedy we are still orchestrating an environmental one. It beggars belief why construction work is continuing on the HS2 project, putting the safety of contractors, the police and protesters at risk. The contractors and protesters would be better off at home and the police focusing on their demanding duties at this very difficult time.”

“Post Covid-19 we will want to get back to normal – a new normal where we seriously address our biodiversity loss and climate change. Projects like HS2 must be left behind, we need new ideas that will be healthy for everyone and everything,” he added.

HS2 contractors stop for lunch during the early days of UK Lockdown

Although, just a day before the hearing, conservationists were delighted to learn that HS2 Ltd suspended all bat mitigation works at the ancient woodlands in response a letter from Natural England; the optimism was short-lived when the two senior judges refused Packham permission to bring a claim against the Government’s decision and did not grant the injunction to halt ongoing and proposed clearance works relating to HS2, for the duration of the legal proceedings.

Announcing the court’s decision, Lord Justice Coulson said: “This application has no realistic prospect of success, so we do not grant permission to bring judicial review proceedings”. He added that, even if the court had thought the application had a realistic chance of success, they “would not have favoured granting the injunction”.

Moving forward

Following this week’s case (8th July) at the Court of Appeal, many of us are now waiting with baited breath, and (sadly) low optimism, at what the result may be.

Nonetheless, to see someone of Chris Packham’s position putting ‘their money where their mouth is’ so to speak – is one good reason to believe in Team Nature.

Carol Day, solicitor at Leigh Day representing Mr Packham, said: “Emergency injunction applications of this nature are very rare because the claimant can be required to make a financial undertaking to the Court, but our client felt he had no option but to try given the scale and significance of the loss and damage to irreplaceable wildlife habitats arising from HS2.”

It seems a far cry from Boris Johnson’s declaration back in February, at the afore-mentioned COP26 launch [a climate conference that the UK will host next year], where the Prime Minister encouragingly stated: “It’s only by repairing the damage to the natural world and restoring the balance between humanity and nature – which is now so grotesquely out of kilter – that we can address the problem of climate change.”

A Recovery Network is needed

It’s hard not to reflect back bitterly on the betrayal that followed just a week on from that statement, when the Prime Minister approved HS2.

His giving permission to destroy almost 700 wildlife sites to emit excess carbon emissions for over 120 years, when we have just 30 years to achieve Net Zero, would appear to be utter madness in the face of the Climate and Ecological Emergencies that our Parliament declared just a year ago.

Considering also the massive airport expansion that HS2 is designed to enable; it would certainly seem as though the UK Government will look like hypocrites in front of world leaders at this next global climate summit which they are co-chairing.  

Whether or not Chris Packham’s latest legal battle to bring HS2 to a halt is successful, Team Nature must continue to mobilise its efforts in a multitude of ongoing small and large challenges; from Non-Governmental organisations (NGOs) affected by Covid-19 closures and funding issues, to continually evolving data around biodiversity loss and new rewilding projects and land-purchase organisations springing up almost weekly. There is much to be done, and the time is now.

On the same day as both Boris Johnson’s disappointing Green Economy funding announcement and Chris Packham’s day in court, it would have been easy to miss The Wildlife Trusts’ call for a Recovery Network for insects.

Following a new reportReversing the Decline of Insects, written by Professor Dave Goulson. The Trusts are calling on the Government to introduce an ambitious pesticide reduction target that’s as good as, if not better than, the EU’s target to reduce chemical pesticides by 50% by 2030.

The report is a response to ongoing evidence that insect populations are declining due to habitat loss and pesticide use – at a time when trade deals threaten to increase the use of insect-harming chemicals.

The Wildlife Trust explains that to properly look after insects and other wildlife there needs to be more places where they can thrive – i.e. rich habitats that are free of pesticides and, crucially, linked up so that insect populations are not cut off and can move as the climate changes. Thus proving once more, why dividing the countryside for a rail line is so utterly out of touch with nature.

Conservation organisations cannot buy and manage the necessary tracts of land, so a recovery network for nature that encompasses our homes, highways, villages, cities and the wider countryside, will make a vital contribution towards reversing insect declines The Wildlife Trusts explain.

Sophie Pavelle, credit: instagram.com/sophiepavs/

Zoologist, Wildlife Trusts ambassador and renowned voice for the Beaver Trust, Sophie Pavelle, managed to sum up so perfectly the situation of current times in our recent chat:

“We are in a time when our relationship with the natural world is under intense scrutiny. Huge crises like the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, biodiversity loss and proposition of colossal infrastructure projects like HS2, seem to be a succession of red flags that should be waking us up to the fact that our attitude towards nature and the environment is not right.”

“The last few months have made us realise how valuable nature, wildlife and time spent outdoors can make us feel healthier and happier – and this is supported by a wealth of scientific research. This is our ‘natural capital’. Saving nature, wildlife and improving our relationship with it, will future-proof us economically as the world encounters more challenges.”

 We cannot succeed in economic recovery without prioritising a ‘green recovery’. It’s for our survival as much as nature’s – we need to accept this before it is too late.”

To be continued…

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