A few weeks ago a group of people were invited by HS2 Ltd on a guided site visit view the route of High Speed One through areas of Kent. The purpose of the visit was “to witness some of the engineering features of an operational high speed route and learn from the measures that were taken to mitigate environmental and property impacts on the surrounding area”. The group of about 20 people included a rep from Natural England and various councils from along the route as well as several people from HS2 Ltd and the Department for Transport (DfT).
Here’s our Katharine’s story:
St Pancras International, London (mid-morning)
As the high speed train hurtles me from London towards my destination and I sit listening to the first of many talks, I can’t help but wonder exactly how HS2 Ltd are going to use High Speed 1 as a good example of how ‘green’ our High Speed rail network is. Especially as HS1 caused one of the largest losses of ancient woodland that England has suffered in the last 20 years! Still, I’m looking forward to hearing all about it from the organisation leading on its development.
As we arrive at Ashford International in Kent and are all hustled into a little coach ready for our exciting tour I decide that this is a good opportunity to start off the short film about my day. We have at least 6 Vantage Points to visit along the route – there is one location that I am particularly interested in; where the last Elm tree in Kent was felled for HS1. But that’s Vantage Point three, right before lunch.
Vantage Point One
Nothing much to interest the Woodland Trust at this first point, other than seeing for the first time the width of the track first hand (22 metres across at its narrowest, although the actual width of the necessary cuttings to make the track for HS2 has not been disclosed). I also get to hear first hand the noise of a High Speed train as it races beneath the bridge that we are standing on. Strangely this doesn’t sound too bad when there is the constant drone of the motorway in the background, but I can image what a shock that noise would be to the tranquility of an ancient wood.
We are shown the site of a covered tunnel which has been created next to a school. The tunnel looks surprisingly pretty until you turn around and look at the railway line on the other side of the road. We don’t know if the ‘green’ tunnels of HS2 will have any trees on or near them.
Vantage Point Two
At this Vantage Point I get my first look at the noise mitigation measures. Basically, noise mitigation for HS1 equals a wooden fence that is about 2inches thick. We can only assume that HS2 will have the same measure. Once again the noise of the motorway continues to assail the ears. Most of the High Speed 1 line runs next to motorway, unlike High Speed 2 which will be travelling through open countryside for much of its journey.
Vantage Point Three
This is the point that I have been waiting to see, the historic location of the last Elm tree in Kent. The site is a ‘green’ tunnel now and there appears to have been very little tree planting taken place – and sadly there’s nothing to show where the Elm tree once stood.
Vantage Point Four
By this time I am beginning to wonder if there is any mitigation planting to be seen at all. This Point does however show us an incredibly wide track cutting, which I can just imagine slicing through one of the twenty and more ancient woods that may be affected by HS2. With how bare the sloping side here are, I can’t imagine that any animal will be able to cross the railway line, so those woods bisected by track will be completely and irrevocably separated. The smaller and more isolated a wood becomes, the less habitat is available for each species and the less likely wildlife is to survive.
Vantage Point Five
Here we are shown a viaduct crossing the river Medway. Once again the site is right next to the motorway which effectively drowns out the sound of the trains going by. I try to imagine what a viaduct like this will be like going over the Colne Valley and passing within metres of the ancient woodland at Battlesford in Buckinghamshire. I also begin to wonder how much damage will be done when a massive structure such as this is built so close to an ancient wood, and in an area designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) too.
Vantage Point Six
Finally, some mitigation planting. The plus side here is that small-leaved broadleaf trees appear to be being planted. Presumably this is because trees with small leaves (like Birch) are less likely to clog up a track when shedding their leaves during autumn than Horse Chestnut (for example), and broadleaved species will offer greater opportunities for wildlife. But this planting looks relatively new – if they are still planting along HS1 at least ten years after it was completed, I can only speculate about how long it might take for them to plant along the HS2 route!
This is where I hear that everything is going to be ok and that we all can stop campaigning against ancient woodland loss because apparently the ancient woodland along the route is going to be translocated. In conversation with one of the main engineers for HS1, I’m told that we will not lose ancient woodland along the line as it will be translocated (essentially, picked up and moved somewhere else). Translocation!? I hear you shout – the same reaction that I had too at the mention of the T word. We already know that the unique habitat of ancient woodland cannot be recreated, and so it also goes that it can’t be easily translocated either. He then goes on to say that ‘rehoming’ ancient woodland has already worked in several places. We have our doubts though and we know of no scientific evidence to demonstrate this is effective. It’s often bandied around by developers as a form of mitigation for ancient woodland destruction but habitat translocation is not something we encourage. If nothing else, humans simply don’t have the technological capacity. Yes, trees may be established on translocated ground but the fundamental attribute of ‘ancient woodland’ – its undisturbed soils – has been lost and the area can never be the same again. It’s within these final moments of the tour that any vague feelings of hope I may have had (they were very vague, I would like to add) evaporate. I guess that there is still a long way to go in understanding ancient woodland and why it is such a fragile and important habitat.
To have a look at the film of my day along High Speed 1 please follow this link: http://ow.ly/5MGJ0.
There’s still time to speak up for the environment and those threatened ancient woods – the consultation closes on July 29th.
Katharine Barnes, Woods under Threat