Barn owl in tree hollow

HS2 project will devastate ‘huge swathes’ of natural habitat

Image credit: John Cumber - Dreamstime

A new report claims the HS2 high-speed rail project will destroy and divide hundreds of wildlife sites and nature reserves – including 108 ‘irreplaceable’ ancient woodlands.

The study is the “most comprehensive” assessment of the environmental damage that HS2 could cause. It was compiled using data provided by 14 local Wildlife Trusts and other charities and landowners along the route, including the National Trust and the Woodland Trust.

The HS2 project, which it is estimated will cost £88bn overall, aims to provide a high-speed rail service linking London and northern England.

According to the report, titled ‘What’s the damage?’, the project will destroy or irreparably damage five internationally protected wildlife sites; 693 local wildlife sites; 108 ancient woodlands, and 33 legally protected sites of special scientific interest.

Strips of other irreplaceable natural habitats will also be lost to the new high-speed line, with the trust saying “rarities” such as the dingy skipper butterfly could also be made extinct locally, while barn owls and endangered wildlife such as white-clawed crayfish could be impacted.

The Government’s 25-year plan for the environment includes a commitment for “environmental net gain” in infrastructure projects. HS2 has pledged there will be no net loss of biodiversity along the whole route. However, the Wildlife Trusts argued that this was “unachievable under current plans”.

“The figures are grim and the reality is worse,” said Nikki Williams, the Wildlife Trusts’ director of campaigns and policy. “HS2 will destroy precious carbon-capturing habitats if it’s allowed to continue in its current form. It will damage the very ecosystems that provide a natural solution to the climate emergency.”

She added that HS2 Ltd’s proposed mitigation for the environmental impact was “inadequate”, labelling the measures they have already suggested as “amateurish” and in “the wrong place”.

The Wildlife Trusts said if the project was to go ahead, a “new” and “greener” approach was needed, calling on the Government to “stop and rethink” the project.

“As Europe’s largest project of its kind, HS2 Ltd has a vital responsibility to lead by example and get this right by delivering a net gain for nature,” said Hilary McGrady, director general of National Trust. “We recognise that designing the railway is a long process but plans for HS2 must not end up cutting corners at the expense of the environment.”

In response to the Wildlife Trusts report, HS2 Ltd said it will deliver a railway that “respects” the natural environment through the creation of a “green corridor” along the route.

According to the company’s website, 9km² (3.4mi²) of new woodlands – made up of seven million trees and shrubs – will be created. It also claims the figure is more than double the amount affected by the project. Furthermore, the firm said 4km² (1.5mi²) of wildlife habitat will be established along the route.

“The number of sites presented in this report as being ‘at risk of loss, or significant impact’ simply isn’t accurate,” HS2 spokesman argued. “HS2 takes the environmental cost of construction very seriously.”

The unnamed spokesman added: “That is why we’re delivering an unprecedented programme of tree planting and habitat creation alongside the new railway – with seven million new trees and shrubs set to be planted between London and Birmingham alone – new native woodland planted to link up ancient woodland and tailored mitigation plans in place for protected species.”

Earlier this month, Labour peer and former transport spokesperson Lord Tony Berkeley criticised aspects of the high-speed rail project in a 70-page report, arguing that parliament was "seriously misled" over the costs of the project.

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