The orange lifebuoys that pop up at random points in the countryside are the first sign of what the naturalist Chris Packham calls the biggest deforestation project in Britain since the first world war. They hang from posts beside shallow, newly dug ponds, surrounded by neat rows of spindly saplings.
These new landscapes are “compensation” for the partial destruction of 63 ancient woods that stand in the intended path of HS2, the high-speed rail line being carved through the countryside between London, Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds. (According to the Woodland Trust, 108 ancient woods are in the frame, when you also count those indirectly affected.) The idea is that, when the woods are felled after centuries of quiet growth, their wildlife, from great-crested newts to woodcock, may seek refuge in these new habitats.
Although HS2 has come under review, after its projected cost rose to £88bn (with the possibility it could be cancelled), “enabling” work for the construction effort continues. According to HS2 Ltd, the government-funded company building the line, it will destroy only a tiny fraction of England’s 52,000 ancient woodlands – with 80% of “affected” woodlands left intact as the new line arrows through them. There will be generous compensation, it claims. But can ancient woods be replaced? And what do the people living beside these imperilled old woods think?
South Cubbington wood in Warwickshire, on a hill above the scenic River Leam, has been fenced off in preparation for the chainsawing of old oaks and wild service trees. A deep cutting wider than a motorway will be carved through it. Beside the wood, a 250-year-old pear tree is surrounded by plastic fencing and awaiting execution. It was crowned England’s “tree of the year” in 2015. Now, dumper trucks thunder past.
“It breaks my heart seeing all this,” says one local resident, Elaine Barker. “The wildlife won’t have the freedom to go from wood to meadow to river because they’ll have a great big concrete line in front of them. And neither will we. We live in Leamington Spa, one of the most polluted towns in Britain, and I have asthmatic children. These woods are a sanctuary.”
South Cubbington is cherished by local people, who tramp its tracks with their dogs, and admire carpets of anemones and bluebells in spring. Breathe the air, says a group of Cubbington residents when we enter the woods: it smells cool, damp, mushroomy. Just 2% of Britain is ancient woodland (older than 400 years, in England and Wales). It often features old trees, dead wood (a habitat for rare beetles) and flora such as native bluebells. But the key, say ecologists, is its soils – even where ancient woodland has been replanted with newer trees, its soil is still undisturbed, chemical-free and rich in fungi, micro-organisms and the seeds of future life.
In recent months, despite a continuing review by the retired engineer Douglas Oakervee, HS2 has become increasingly visible to those living near the London-Birmingham route. Roads and footpaths are abruptly closed; rolling countryside is studded with the orange and yellow of diggers, and fences spring up. Construction tracks are laid down; hedgerows are grubbed up. And people have woken up. A week ago, protesters evaded security around South Cubbington to begin a peaceful protest camp. Barker is heartened. “It’s absolutely lovely to see the whole community coming together and saying: ‘We don’t want this.’”
HS2 Ltd’s plans to minimise woodland destruction appear impressive. It is planting 7m trees and shrubs, creating 3,300 hectares of wildlife habitat – a third greater than there is today. Ecologists say one crucial part of ancient woodland is its (untouched, chemical-free) soil, and so in South Cubbington the forest floor will be dug up and dumped on to new sites. Ironically, the wood’s imminent destruction is because winter is the most wildlife-friendly time to relocate its soil.
But ancient woodland, says Luci Ryan, of the Woodland Trust, is irreplaceable. Every developer threatening ancient woodland (there are 995 examples of development on or beside ancient woodland) claims theirs is just a small slice; a finite resource continues to be eroded. Although the Woodland Trust says no new planting can offset the destruction of such forests, it wants a planting/loss ratio of 30:1. HS2 Ltd has not listed the precise compensation planting for each ancient woodland lost. “If we’re being really generous,” says Ryan, “the planting ratio is about six hectares to every one lost” for phase one of the project (London to Birmingham). “People say: ‘It’s just trees, and people are losing homes and businesses,’ but the problem is the way it was designed – if HS2 Ltd had considered the ancient woods in the beginning we wouldn’t be seen as unreasonable.”
The fragmentation caused by the line slicing through ancient woods is highlighted by Mike Pollard of Banbury Ornithological Society, which owns Glyn Davies wood in Northamptonshire. “We don’t have much ancient woodland in this area; only little pockets of it survive,” he says as he shows me its 300-year-old oaks and the skeletons of last spring’s bluebells (another sign of ancient woodland). “There’s all this deadwood, old trees, two species of elm; it’s a really good sample of ancient woodland.” Everyone knows ancient trees can’t move, but even mobile bird species will be affected, Pollard says. The declining marsh tit needs woodland with a high canopy of tall trees. It will take 40 years before HS2’s compensation woods are big enough for it.
Further up the line, the largest fragment of ancient woodland to be destroyed by HS2 is at Whitmore in Staffordshire. This is “phase 2a” (Birmingham to Crewe), and work has not yet begun. Whitmore Wood’s owner, Edward Cavenagh-Mainwaring, a thoughtful dairy farmer, points to where the line will “punch into the wood” and through its hidden valleys, where fallow deer run. The line will take one-third of the wood as it cuts through Cavenagh-Mainwaring’s farm, taking up to 100 of his 385 hectares during construction. He tries to be positive and has had some constructive negotiations. “HS2 have been comparatively good and communicative. We took the decision to work with them. They responded, and we believe our outcome is better,” he says. For instance, the height of a tunnel under the line has been raised so that he and his neighbour can get their farm machinery through it.
But it’s not just the wood, the hedges or wetlands he has created for wildlife that will be irrevocably changed. “We have to look after the soil – that’s your legacy,” he says. “We’re into the soil and wildlife, and I feel quite annoyed that this bloody thing is coming right through the middle of us. I get compensated for that, but I don’t think it deals with the mental scarring this sort of project has. We live for this land, and we watch the work we have done on it being ’dozed out of the way. For me, the biggest impact of HS2 is on my head. It’s a mental-health thing.”
South of Sheffield, Mark Hewitt surveys the gently curving green horizon of Nor wood. Hewitt, a farmer, entrepreneur and God-fearing Yorkshireman, likes this view so much that he is building a church here, where he will be buried.
“The view is absolutely astounding. For a monstrosity to go through here, there must be something wrong with the country. They want their heads looking at!” he says. “I hope this church protects the wood. Some views are given to you. You don’t make views like that. God made that. The last thing I will do is stop this train going through this wood.”
Hewitt is the kind of larger-than-life character you would not bet against. His childhood was spent in the woods here in Killamarsh. “We lived in this wood, I can show you every rabbit hole, every nook and cranny. This was our back yard. It touches a lot of people’s hearts in Killamarsh,” he says. “It’s beautiful, this wood. There are buzzards nesting here … tawny owls, long-eared owls, crossbills, barn owls, two species of deer … everything.”
After making money in farming, plant hire and fishing lakes, Hewitt bought the wood and extended it, planting 40,000 trees and digging ponds. It’s not nimbyism, he says. “If I didn’t live here, my opinion would be exactly the same. I’m just trying to protect what’s left. No money in the world can buy this wood. It belongs to my village, and I’m proud of it. Ask our Queen what she thinks about them destroying her land. She is welcome to visit here. It is her land, and they are ruining it.”
For people in Cubbington, hope arrived when HS2 abruptly changed tack last week and announced there would be no chainsawing of ancient trees in South Cubbington or 10 other ancient woodland until the new year. This reprieve came after lawyers for Chris Packham challenged the government on the legality of chainsawing trees while the whole project is under review.
Packham, who also organised “Euston, we have a problem”, a protest at HS2’s London terminus, has eloquently linked HS2 to a wider ecological crisis. “It’s just an enormous act of ecological vandalism at a time when we really should know better,” he told Jonathan Pie (the actor/comedian Tom Walker). “It’s like a light has gone on in one part of our brain telling us that there is a climate and environmental emergency, and we’ve all got to make changes to address this issue, but we haven’t yet turned the other one [light] off; the one that tells us we’ve got to make this short-term progress. Will someone please turn that old light off so that we can bathe in the brightness of a new vision for a better future for ourselves and the planet?”
For Elaine Barker at South Cubbington, the reprieve is a “sigh of relief”, but she fears the HS2 review will endorse “business as usual”. Like Packham, she sees no sign of the gulf closing between a growing awareness of environmental crises and bad stuff continuing to be done on – and to – the ground in Britain. Yet. “The government is just so far removed from what’s going on in the world,” she says. “We can’t just say they shouldn’t be cutting down forests in Brazil. By cutting down trees here, that’s contributing to climate change. Where do we start if we don’t start at home?”