This information was published by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) in early October, before Justine Greening’s appointment as Secretary of State for Transport.
The Government’s controversial HS2 (high speed rail) proposal could be stopped in its tracks by a significant colony of rare and highly protected Bechstein’s bats, and it seems nobody told Philip Hammond – will they tell Justine Greening?
Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust has obtained copies of emails between Natural England (the Government’s wildlife advisors), and HS2 Ltd about the colony of Bechstein’s bats in Bernwood Forest, Buckinghamshire.
These reveal that on 7 June, Natural England advised HS2 Ltd: ‘There is potential for Bechstein’s to be a showstopper, but it could be that it won’t be a problem or that it might require redesign of the scheme…but we simply don’t know with the survey information which is currently available. Therefore we urge HS2 to undertake surveys (ASAP) in order to understand the likelihood of impacts.’
Seven weeks after HS2 Ltd was advised to get the bat survey work done as soon as possible, David Lidington MP wrote to the Secretary of State for Transport asking what action the Department had taken ‘to assess the effect that HS2 would have on this rare wildlife species.’
Philip Hammond’s reply on 30 August states: ‘No assessments have yet been undertaken on the effects of the HS2 proposal on Bechstein’s bats in the Bernwood Forest, as this issue is very much at a local level.’
Matt Jackson, Head of Conservation Policy at Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust, who initiated the Freedom of Information request, comments:
“The Secretary of State’s reply to David Lidington shows that advice from Natural England to HS2 Ltd is not being passed to him.”
The Wildlife Trust took legal advice about the bat colony and sent it to the Department of Transport through the formal HS2 consultation process in July.
Matt Jackson points out: “The legal advice highlights the need for the Secretary of State to be certain that the HS2 development will not have a significant effect on the bats before he is able to make a decision whether or not to proceed with HS2.
“We are very worried because it looks as though vital information about the Bechstein’s bat colony is simply not getting through to the Secretary of State – who is ultimately deciding whether or not HS2 goes ahead.
“At a time when the Department for Transport is actively encouraging railway companies to compete for HS2 contracts – even though a decision has not yet been made – it seems that the Secretary of State is being kept in the dark about the significance of the Bechstein’s bat colony.”
Bechstein’s bats are a European Protected Species and UK Biodiversity Action Plan species. They have the highest possible level of statutory wildlife protection in the UK.
The North Bucks Bat Group, which is taking part in a four-year survey of Bechstein’s, observed at least 65 bats emerging at dusk from their roost inside a tree in woodland west of the HS2 route. Tiny radio tracking devices on female Bechstein’s enabled the bat detectors to record them crossing the proposed HS2 route into woodland which the route will go through.
Bechstein’s bats are known to occur in 10 woods within the Bernwood Forest area of Buckinghamshire, including the Wildlife Trust’s Finemere Wood nature reserve. This colony could be the most significant population in England, and better than many of the existing Special Areas of Conservation where Bechstein’s bats are known to breed.