Rare bat sighting at HS2 sight halts destruction of semi-ancient woodland, but for how long?

After the sighting of a rare Barbastelle bat roost, protestors were able to stop High Speed Railway 2 from continuing to illegally fell Johns Hill Woods, Buckinghamshire. After an arrest, assaults from security and a later eviction, any further work by HS2 has been halted due to the sight of a rare Barbastelle bat roost. Just yesterday, Baron Berkeley will ask in parliament for a full peer-reviewed surveys to be conducted according to professional guidelines..

Mark Kier, a campaigner has has been at the frontline of Stop HS2 for the last three years, tells me:

“Yesterday was the first win that tells our story. What is happening with HS2 is not legal or democractic and the police are beginning to believe it. At last, we’re starting to see MPs, courts, police and the press beginning to talk about the legalities behind the work being carried out by HS2.”

Having spent a night at the camp, I witnessed floodlights beaming into the trees where Barbastelle bats were said to be roosting. Security men patrol the woodlands throughout the night, talking loudly and shining military-grade-flashlights up into the trees.

Barbastelles are very sensitive to disturbances. And this why they are an endangered species in the UK, listed as “near threatened” on the global IUCN red lis . Loss of habitat, loss of food (insects) due to the overuse of pesticides are said to be the biggest factors for their decline. Despite being protected under Wildlife Protection Laws, ecologists fear that they may lose yet another roosting ground if HS2 begins felling the woods.

Eileen Robley, a professional ecologist on the site, explains: 

“If HS2 starts to fell trees, they will be committing an offence, since the barbastelle bat has been sighted in these woodlands. The difficulty is that bats often have more than one roost. So they might be in one roost tonight, but if they get disturbed, they may then relocate to another roost in the same woodlands.”

Barbastelle bats are most easily identified by their ‘pug like’ features. Photo courtesy of Corylus Ecology

Most species of bat have declined in the UK over the past decade

Bats are the hidden, night pollinators of the forest. Their presence can help redistribute seeds, help plants spread, increasing biodiversity as well as keeping insect populations within a harmonious balance in forest ecology. Since they are nocturnal and hide away in caves, barns or cracks in old trees, their whereabouts are often misunderstood.

Their nightly contribution to the forest means that their importance to the ecosystem often gets overlooked. It’s likely to only catch a glimpse of these creatures at dusk or dawn, when you can spot a glimpse of their silhouettes fluttering in the sky, theirs songs are ultrasonic and too high of a frequency to be caught by the human ear. Their echolocation navigation system has always been a wonder to scientists.

Most species of bat have declined in the UK over the past decade. It is estimated that the pipistrelle, our commonest bat, declined by 70% between 1978 and 1993, according to Westlands For Life.

Why ancient woodlands are so important?

Johns hill is a semi-ancient woodland filled with history. These woods, which inspired Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, are dominated by large beech trees. They home to many species of bats, badgers, tawny owls, bluebells, foxes, primroses, moths and countless other animals and insects that are vital for our biodiversity. 

An ancient beech tree in New Forest. Photo by Richard Loader 

Whilst we only have 2.5% of remaining ancient forest in the UK, according to the Woodlands Trust, HS2 will destroy 108 ancient woodlands and 33 legally protected sites of special scientific interests.

Beneath the crunchy earth of nuts and shells is an entire network of mycorrhizal fungal, the life-support system of the entire forest ecology. These types of networks are essential to over 90 per percent of plant life in the world. HS2s attempt to simply ‘translocate’ the forest floor by moving earth from one part of the site to another, ‘simply doesn’t work’, says Robley.

The earth of an ancient forest floor holds the entire life-supporting ecosystem of the forest, served by the soils biotic community, which are able to connect multiple plants within the woodlands and act as conduits for the transfer of nutrients and chemical information. This is essential for life above the forest floor.

In an ancient woodland, this network of fungi has accumulated over centuries of not being disturbed, meaning ancient forests are a complex habitat for rare and endangers species of plants and animals. These types of forest floors are the most efficient in capturing carbon from the environment, making healthy soils one of the primary solutions to climate change.

Whilst we only have 2.5% of remaining ancient forest in the UK, according to the Woodlands Trust, HS2 will destroy 108 ancient woodlands and 33 legally protected sites of special scientific interests. Many other endangered species will also be affected, including willow tit, white-clawed crayfish, barn owls, dingy skipper butterfly, all of which are at risk of local extinction.

Fungus decomposing a fallen tree. Photo courtesy of Hannah Wright 

HS2 to begin surveying for bats after ‘many have already gone into hibernation’

HS2 have declared that any progress will be halted until surveys have taken place. Yet Robley fears that “many bats will have already gone into hibernation” and many will have already been disturbed. The fate of these woodlands is now in the hands of the ecologists employed by HS2, who have already begun surveying the woodland. This process could take up to an entire month, but without having a license, any further felling would be a breach of wildlife restrictions in

This is part of a wider discussion on how wildlife laws are truly being implemented on the ground. HS2 have already destroyed a number of habitats without permission, and have already admitted to felling trees without the correct licence in Buckinghamshire in January this year.

If it wasn’t for the protestors on the ground, HS2 would have started felling trees without the correct license. This entire case really shows the crooks in our wildlife protection system, for the lack of organised bodies, independent ecologists and precautionary procedures means we could lose some of the UK’s last remaining endangered habitats and species during what scientists condor as a ‘global biodiversity collapse’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s