Ancient woodland translocation: a spotlight on HS2

In the latest in our HS2 blog series, Kate Dewey, Senior Planning Officer at Staffordshire Wildlife Trust, looks at the impact of HS2 on ancient woodlands, and explains the reality of translocation.

What is an ancient woodland?

Ancient woodland is defined as woodland that has been in place for at least 600 years, making it irreplaceable. However, it has no legal protection unless part of a statutory designated site. There are strong national planning policies protecting it from development, but if a project is judged to be of overriding public interest, it can be destroyed.

Tragically, some ancient woodlands are not even 'recognised' and can therefore be overlooked. Orignally, only those over two hectares were registerd on the national inventory. For many of the smaller woods, it is a gradual process to have these assessed and mapped by Natural England.

HS2 Ltd only accounted for the known ancient woods on the route, until pressure from the Woodland Trust and others forced them to carry out more work. This led to three further ancient woodlands being discovered on the Phase 1 route in Staffordshire, all of which will be severely impacted. Yet work is already underway.

Translocation

Translocation is the best attempt to provide mitigation. It involves moving plants, soils, coppice stumps (such as hazel and elm, that will hopefully re-grow) and dead wood to another location nearby: sometimes into another existing wood, or an area where new trees can be planted over the soil.

What's the problem then?

The success or otherwise of woodland that has been translocated is still not well understood, as many translocations in the past have not been monitored well, or the results published. In addition, it is impossible to re-create ancient woodland, as it is the soil structure and ecosystems that have built up over hundreds of years that make them so unique. Therefore generally, The Wildlife Trusts view translocation as the absolute last option.

We also have grave concerns about the ‘edge effects’ translocation will have on remaining woodland (that which is not destroyed by the route). There would be more disturbance and light when trees are removed, which means even if the woodland is not lost, some will lose the wildlife that makes them special e.g. woodland flowers.

HS2 Ltd is proposing a programme of monitoring and research to study translocation sites, and we will be feeding into this. But, we are concerned that if failures happen, they will not be made public. It’s essential that any problems are solved, that HS2 Ltd are held to account, and that the project does all it can to further knowledge and best practice.

Bluebells in an ancient woodland

Bluebells in an ancient woodland © David Cadman Staffordshire Wildlife Trust

Ancient woodland works in Staffordshire

Work was planned to take place on five ancient woodlands, one in Staffordshire and four in Warwickshire in autumn 2019, but the HS2 project was delayed by the Oakervee review and general election. HS2 Ltd now propose to work on some woodlands this spring, which contradicts HS2 Ltd's previous commitment to follow best practice.

Eight ancient woodlands in Staffordshire are due to be worked on this autumn, with the loss of nearly 10 hectares. Fulfen Wood, near Lichfield, was due to be cleared now, but the work programme has thankfully been reviewed and postponed to autumn 2020, in line with other woodland clearing. Working in spring is much riskier - as it means plants and trees are growing, rather than dormant, and birds are nesting. Hot weather can also affect how well plants survive being moved.

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, it isn’t possible for Wildlife Trust staff to go out to check on these woods, and we are very worried that work going ahead in Warwickshire will not adhere to safe practices.

What's next?

We will be continuing to talk with HS2 Ltd’s ecologists to ensure they are carrying out accurate surveys of the woodlands to record all the plants, animals and fungi before any areas are lost. We are reviewing the mitigation and management plans for each wood to see that they are as good as possible. We are also one of the stakeholders invited to input to HS2 Ltd’s proposals for scientific monitoring and research.

Staffordshire Wildlife Trust's work on HS2

Our battle with HS2 Ltd started in 2010 when the route for Phase 1 was announced, ending in Staffordshire near Lichfield. We immediately sent ecologists out to survey all the woodlands on the route, and ensure they were designated as Local Wildlife Sites.

As the scheme progressed we were part of a new Ecology Technical Group set up by Wildlife Trusts and councils along Phase 1. Through our comments and petitions on the many environmental statements and route designs, we pushed for better mitigation for wildlife sites, and for potential ‘new’ ancient woods to be identified.

In October 2014 we were the first Wildlife Trust to appear in front of the Commons Select Committee to give evidence. We were successful in ensuring HS2 Ltd surveyed for priority mammals such as pine marten, and helped push for HS2 Ltd to identify small ancient woodlands that were not yet registered. In 2015 HS2 Ltd finally added several newly discovered woods to the inventory, which meant the total impact was properly recognised.

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