The answer lies in the soil

This is a guest article by Peter Delow, who blogs as HS2 and the Environment.  It was originally published here.

In my blog Doing it on the cheap (posted 4 Mar 2012) I quoted a sentence from paragraph 3.2.4 on page 22 of Review of possible refinements to the proposed HS2 London to West Midlands Route (here) and came to the conclusion that the latest proposals by HS2 Ltd would still inflict significant damage on the ancient woodland of South Cubbington Wood.

There is a second sentence in paragraph 3.2.4 that is supposed, I presume, to offer a crumb of comfort to those of us who are concerned about the proposed desecration of this environmental jewel:

“It would be possible during preliminary design and EIA to investigate the possibility of saving any woodland soils so it could be used to provide new habitat and access opportunities to nearby adjacent land.”

Now the essential characteristic of ancient woodland is that its soil has remained undisturbed for centuries. It is this lack of disturbance that has allowed the spectacular carpet of wood anemones that appears in South Cubbington Wood every spring, shown in the photograph below, to build up. Wood anemones are slow to colonise; I have been told that it takes a hundred years for a patch two metres across to form. Just imagine how many centuries have been required for nature to build the spectacle that is shown in this photograph!

South Cubbington Wood in March (Frances Wilmot)

The technique that HS2 Ltd refers to, saving woodland soils and using them to create new habitats, is usually referred to as “habitats translocation”. It is a very controversial topic; it proponents tend to be the developers and construction industry (no surprise) and its detractors the conservationists. The “official” line on habitat translocation was set out by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) in July 2003, and this remains its current policy. The JNCC (website) is a statutory advisor to the UK Government and the devolved administrations and is a forum that brings together the Countryside Council for Wales, Northern Ireland’s Council for Nature Conservation and the Countryside, Natural England and Scottish Natural Heritage.

The JNCC policy statement on habitat translocation is A Habitats Translocation Policy for Britain (here). In paragraph 5.1 on page 7 of this document the JNCC sets out the battle lines:

“Habitats translocations have been proposed as offering a solution when an area recognised as of importance for wildlife is threatened by development. From the point of view of a developer, habitats translocation is an attractive solution because it can be cheaper and more convenient to move the habitat than to proceed with the development elsewhere. Thus transport, housing and industrial development interests are greatly affected by policies and practices concerning habitats translocation. The response by conservationists to habitats translocation is most strongly negative for those sites which are of high conservation interest (internationally important or of SSSI quality) for their habitats and species. Even for sites of more local interest, opposition to habitats translocation is strong from conservationists because of the poor track record of sustaining the original quality of translocated habitats, coupled with their dislocation from their ecological and historical context. This has resulted in strongly opposing views on the merits and role of habitats translocation, between conservationists on one side and developers on the other.”

So what is the JNCC’s verdict on the effectiveness of habitat translocation as a conservation tool? The answer is in paragraph 5.2 on page 7:

“The available evidence … indicates that habitats translocations have not been successful in maintaining the characteristic biodiversity of the assemblage that is moved, and so the practice is regarded as damaging by statutory and voluntary conservation organisations and many academic researchers.”

The policy of the JNCC is summarised in paragraph 7.1 on page 9:

“The translocation of habitats is considered by the statutory conservation agencies not to be an acceptable alternative to in situ conservation. The statutory conservation agencies will continue to make the strongest possible case against translocating habitats from within SSSIs and from ancient habitats (or other areas with significant biodiversity interest) elsewhere.”

The document makes clear, in paragraph 7.2 on page 10, that “ancient habitats” include “ancient woodland” and therefore, HS2 Ltd please note, this includes South Cubbington Wood.

When it comes to the conservation of ancient woodland, there is no better champion than the Woodland Trust. In the Trust’s Position statement: Ancient woods and translocation (here) it states “the Trust views the term ‘habitat translocation’ with total scepticism”. The Trust reasons that:

“Soils and vegetation are the product of geology, climate and biotic influences which in combination are unique to a single place, and they cannot function in isolation from that place.”

The Trust’s evaluation of habitat translocation is that:

“It cannot protect ancient woodland (probably the most complex of all habitats and the most reliant on undisturbed conditions for its survival). At best it may create conditions for the re-establishment of relatively natural woodland but this itself is unproven due to the vast length of time required to monitor its effectiveness. The beauty, structure and full biodiversity of an ancient woodland cannot be moved from place to place by a bulldozer.”

And, in summary, the Position Statement concludes:

“Semi-natural ancient woodland has acquired its unique characteristics of undisturbed soils, stable micro-climate and specially adapted species over centuries even millennia, and its cultural history and present day significance are inextricably bound up with its location. The very act of disturbing such a complex ecosystem will compromise its biodiversity and thus its stability. The idea that such a intricate delicate habitat can be moved from one place to another in working order and that all of the thousands of interactions between plants and animals can resume as if nothing had happened is simplistic at best and arrogant at worst.”

Now I wish that I could have written that paragraph!

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