Dominic Woodfield is the Managing Director of Bioscan, an extended established and nicely-revered consultancy specialising in utilized ecology.

He’s a life-lengthy birder, a specialist in botany, habitat restoration and creation and in protected fauna together with bats, herpetofauna and different species. He’s additionally a extremely skilled practitioner in Environmental Affect Evaluation and Habitats Rules Evaluation. Most of his work is for the event sector, however he has additionally undertaken commissions for Natural England, the RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and marketing campaign teams. He as soon as mounted an independent legal challenge in defence of an vital web site for butterflies in Bicester, Oxfordshire, which resulted in planning permission for a 5-hundred unit housing improvement being overturned. He lives in Oxford along with his companion and household.

Jones Hill Wooden shortly after the eviction of protestors in October 2020. The left-hand half of the wooden as seen in this picture shall be eliminated by HS2. Picture: Dominic Woodfield

Jones Hill Wooden is an historic semi-pure woodland sitting atop a mild hill in the countryside north of Nice Missenden in the Buckinghamshire Chilterns. That village was the house of the celebrated Roald Dahl and Jones Hill Wooden is a part of the countryside round it that impressed tales akin to Fantastic Mr Fox. A lot of Incredible Mr Fox considerations the flight of woodland denizens from the wrath and the diggers of farmers Boggis, Bunce and Bean (the farm adjoining Jones Hill Wooden continues to be owned by a Mr Bunce). The story ends with the farmers miserably however tenaciously ready for Mr Fox to emerge from a gap on the backside of a crater that’s all that’s left of his devastated dwelling, unaware that the wily hero has outwitted them by making a far-reaching underground tunnel community that the reader is left confidently considering will permit the woodland creatures to outlive the siege.

There may be now a brand new solid of characters enjoying out a narrative of wildlife versus diggers in the countryside round Roald Dahl’s dwelling. The scenes at this time at Jones Hill Wooden could possibly be straight out of the illustrations of Roald Dahl’s ebook or its profitable animated movie adaptation, however the villains Boggis, Bunce and Bean have been changed by HS2 Ltd and Natural England. Including to the pantheon of characters in this 21st Century model are a gaggle of protestors, native residents and politicians, NGOs, involved impartial ecologists and legal professionals. Some are wholly unconvinced that destroying round half of Jones Hill Wooden to create one aspect of a railway slicing is a suitable worth to pay for the supply of the brand new excessive-velocity line. Others are merely horrified on the method HS2 are going about it and by the complicity and lack of spine that seems to be being proven by the regulator Natural England in holding HS2 Ltd to account, regardless of its guarantees of exemplary environmental requirements.

Final autumn, the battle to avoid wasting Jones Hill Wooden got here to the primary of many latest crunch factors when protestors who had occupied the wooden with the consent of the landowner for a lot of 2020 had been forcibly evicted by HS2 as a precursor to felling and clearing the location. The protestors had not used their time idly, and claimed to have collected proof of bat roosts, together with a roost of the uncommon barbastelle bat. As HS2 geared as much as fell the woodland, the recommendation of ecological professionals and legal professionals was sought and regardless of issues with disclosure it shortly emerged that HS2 had failed to hold out any correct surveys of bats to determine what mitigation was required to adjust to their strict safety underneath UK and European legislation. “Maintain up!”, I hear you say. “That they had not bothered to survey an historic woodland correctly for the presence of bats? Are there any extra seemingly locations bats could possibly be?” However it’s true. ‘Cavalier’ is how I described the place after I was contacted in October 2020 and first requested to take a look at the requirements of data produced by HS2. I now assume that was overly beneficiant.

Step ahead the Woodland Trust whose CEO Darren Moorcroft described HS2’s intention to fell ancient woodland without proper bat surveys or a bat licence as tantamount to “bulldozing a church or listed constructing with out even wanting what’s inside it”. Drawing on recommendation and witness proof from myself and others that it was statistically inconceivable that an space of historic woodland of this measurement wouldn’t include bat roosts, they put HS2 on discover that they had been poised to legally problem, by technique of searching for an injunction if vital, any choice to fell the wooden with out correct surveys. Disapproval or concern was additionally expressed from different NGO quarters, albeit with various levels of vigour. Questions had been raised in Parliament and The Home of Lords. And Natural England had been fairly rightly requested pointed questions on their position in facilitating or failing to correctly regulate all of this.

A standing lifeless beech tree with excessive potential for roosting bats in the a part of Jones Hill Wooden to be felled. Picture: Dominic Woodfield

The mounting clamour to do the proper factor finally turned too tough for HS2 to disregard. It turned evident by the dearth of felling that Jones Hill Wooden was being given an unofficial reprieve. We now know that this was in half as a result of HS2 scrambled its employed ecologists to get out throughout October and November to attempt and patch up the baseline dataset with additional survey work. Not solely was this the mistaken time of yr for efficient bat surveys, however by this level the woodland had suffered weeks of fixed safety presence, elimination of floor flora and understorey and the deployment of excessive-powered lighting angled up into the bushes – lighting that could possibly be seen for miles throughout the Chilterns and can not have completed something apart from displace extra gentle delicate bats from the wooden and disturb these others that attempted to return to their roosts regardless. Such disturbance of roosts is an offence underneath the legislation, however provided that it may be confirmed – such proof being a excessive bar that HS2 has constantly pointed at with a proverbial wink and a smile. Because the protestors and others have discovered, it is rather tough to show wildlife offences are going down on a web site that you just can not get anyplace close to because of intense safety.

Excessive powered lighting directed onto Jones Hill Wooden by HS2 contractors, November 2020.

Regardless of a number of requests, HS2 have constantly did not launch details about survey outcomes, methodologies, mitigation and different issues, with Natural England dragging their ft by way of the FOI course of at each flip. Nonetheless, from what info has filtered by way of the latter route, the next has been realized. It emerged in March 2021 that surveys by HS2 over the winter of 2020/21 had certainly discovered a winter roosting web site for soprano pipistrelle bats. Right here was the proof that if HS2 had been profitable in its intentions to fell the wooden the earlier autumn, offences would have been dedicated. Any contrition from HS2? No. Any sharp consumption of breath from NE? No.

So, it was now past dispute {that a} licence was required – vindicating the protestors’ and Woodland Belief’s place. However how do you apply for a licence when you’ve gotten failed by your personal incompetence or disregard to fulfill the minimal survey necessities over the numerous survey alternatives you’ve gotten had in the seven years because you had been granted permission for a venture, and then discover that it’s nonetheless too early in the yr to hold out such surveys?

Step ahead Natural England, holding open and beckoning you in direction of a aspect door that permits you to circumvent this drawback. That is in the form of one thing known as licensing coverage 4 (LP4). LP4 permits NE to simply accept educated guesswork to bridge the hole between business customary or in any other case ample surveys and the extent of data required for enough certainty in the licensing course of. In response to NE’s personal steering, it’s expressly meant to be used in “easy” conditions the place there are good, justifiable the reason why the surveys are not so good as they need to be and the place extra frequent species whose necessities are higher recognized are involved.

Utilizing LP4, HS2 utilized in early 2021 for a licence to cowl bat offences at Jones Hill Wooden primarily based on a worst-case situation that the wooden contained roosts of a broad vary of bat species, together with the uncommon barbastelle, and a number of people of these species.

Let’s cease for a second to think about how far HS2 have been dragged. Their place in October 2020 was that there have been no bat constraints at Jones Hill Wooden enough to stop them clearing the location there and then. Their place is now that quite a few roosts, together with breeding roosts of uncommon species, is perhaps destroyed. Why would they modify their place so comprehensively – might or not it’s a case of “say no matter you assume will get you a licence”?

Evidently, sure. As a result of Natural England have certainly granted a licence masking impacts as much as and together with the lack of a number of roosts and the lack of breeding websites for 3 bat species (see https://naturalengland.blog.gov.uk/2021/03/31/bat-licensing-at-jones-hill-wood/). The mitigation and compensation for these impacts entails placing up a couple of bat bins, and vital reliance on future measures that may take a long time to be delivered. A breeding roost of barbastelle bats adequately compensated (such that there isn’t a internet destructive impact on native populations of this uncommon species) by sticking up some bat bins? Is there a confirmed occasion of this cursory stage of compensation for one of these roost and this species working? I do know of none.

With the licence issued final week, the tree fellers moved in on Jones Hill Wooden this morning, 6th April 2021. By the point you learn this, the woodland could also be felled.

What’s the takeaway message from this? Fairly clearly, it’s that so long as your venture is sufficiently sufficiently big which you can bully Natural England, you needn’t hassle complying with ample wildlife surveys or certainly different minimal business requirements. Simply paint a worst case and decide to unproven or lengthy-into-the-future mitigation and compensation measures and that may get you previous the regulatory hurdle. Wish to take down this line of bushes filled with outdated woodpecker holes? I’ve completed no bat surveys however I’ll mitigate on the idea {that a} barbastelle breeding roost is current. Taking my lead from the Jones Hill Wooden licence, this implies I would like do not more than stick up some bat bins over there. High quality, right here’s your licence.

The fundamental premise behind licensing coverage 4 – that there have to be allowance for conditions the place impacts could be confidently predicted even when survey requirements haven’t been capable of be met – is eminently smart. However the issue with any such coverage is guarding towards its abuse. By issuing HS2 with a bat licence for Jones Hill Wooden in the way in which they’ve, Natural England have demonstrated that they won’t block such abuse. Their method to protected species licensing is as an alternative quickly descending into rubber stamping big leaps of religion. Licensing selections have gotten primarily based not on “we’re completely assured this mitigation is confirmed and will work” however “we really feel there’s an opportunity this mitigation might work”. That represents a departure from each the spirit and the letter of the Habitats Directive and the UK Rules that also, submit-Brexit, search to implement it, and could but be challenged in the courts. And what message does it ship to different builders and house owners with a bat subject?

When Boggis, Bunce and Bean pursued their quarrel with Incredible Mr Fox and their diggers destroyed his wooden, Roald Dahl didn’t really feel any want to write down about licenses and wildlife crime. The story unfolds in a mid-20th Century world solely unfettered by regulation or intervention from a authorities nature company. It’s arduous to not conclude that we’re heading again in direction of this level. And one alarming query stays hanging: if HS2 had been so near getting away with wildlife crime on the nicely-watched Jones Hill Wooden, what the hell is going on on the numerous different woods, hedgerows and mature bushes affected elsewhere alongside the route?  

Nonetheless from Incredible Mr Fox – or the failure of state nature conservation our bodies at a wooden close to you?
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