Regular readers of this blog may recall that back in June I blogged (here) about the "Battle of Lodge Hill".  Well, yesterday, a new skirmish in that battle was settled. Natural England's Board has done the right thing and confirmed Chattenden Woods and Lodge Hill as a SSSI.  At a public meeting yesterday, the Board heard the justification for the notification from its own staff, objections from Medway Council, Land Securities and Defence Infrastructure Organisation and a short statement in favour from me on behalf of the RSPB.

The political significance of the site is clear: this is a site where Ministry of Defence wants to dispose of public land to meet the housing demands of a local authority.  We argue that Medway has not properly asssessed alternative sites and there are less damaging  locations to meet housing demand.  

This is not a case of nightingales against houses.  This is a case about how we reconcile our socio-economic and environmental needs including protecting one of the nation's most important nightingale sites.  This is why we are urging the Ministry of Defence to drop their plans to develop this nationally important site.  We remain committed to working with Medway Council to find a suitable alternative which provides the housing Medway needs whilst protecting wildlife for the people of Medway and its future generations.

But this political context was irrelevant in the Natural England Board debate.  Their task was to determine whether the evidence about the wildlife importance of the site was robust and when assessed against SSSI selection guidelines, it qualified.

I have to say that I was incredibly impressed by the level of scrutiny conducted by the NE Board.   They probed hard on the interpretation of the guidelines and on the science.  I think that anyone who witnessed them in action would have been impressed by the diligence in the way their exercised their statutory obligations for SSSI notification.

The site was notified on the quality of the ancient wood, grassland and nightingales.  For nightingales, the debate focused on whether the numbers of nightingales at Chattenden Woods and Lodge exceeded 1% of the national population - the threshold for notification.   To cut a long story short, Natural England argued, and we agreed, that the 85 territorial nightingales recorded in 2012 and the 65 recorded in 2013 were sufficient to demonstrate that the site held more than 1% of the national population (estimated by BTO in 2012 as between 6250 and 6550 territorial birds).  The woodland interest created less debate, while the grassland site (as Miles King writes in his blog here) was a bit more contentious.

In the end, I was heartened by the decision.  It was an impressive performance from outgoing chair of NE Board, Poul Christensen.  He ensured that everyone focused on their legal obligation and even a passing reference to cultural significance (using a quote from John Clare to demonstrate site fidelity from nightingales - "many a merry year" - see below) was deemed inappropriate.

Culture, economics and even politics can wait another day.

For now, we have a new SSSI in England and we should all be delighted.


The Nightingale's Nest by John Clare

Up this green woodland-ride let’s softly rove, 
And list the nightingale - she dwells just here. 
Hush ! let the wood-gate softly clap, for fear 
The noise might drive her from her home of love ; 
For here I’ve heard her many a merry year - 
At morn, at eve, nay, all the live-long day, 
As though she lived on song. This very spot, 
Just where that old-man’s-beard all wildly trails 
Rude arbours o’er the road, and stops the way - 
And where that child its blue-bell flowers hath got, 
Laughing and creeping through the mossy rails - 
There have I hunted like a very boy, 
Creeping on hands and knees through matted thorn 
To find her nest, and see her feed her young. 
And vainly did I many hours employ : 
All seemed as hidden as a thought unborn. 
And where those crimping fern-leaves ramp among 
The hazel’s under boughs, I’ve nestled down, 
And watched her while she sung ; and her renown 
Hath made me marvel that so famed a bird 
Should have no better dress than russet brown. 
Her wings would tremble in her ecstasy, 
And feathers stand on end, as ’twere with joy, 
And mouth wide open to release her heart 
Of its out-sobbing songs. The happiest part 
Of summer’s fame she shared, for so to me 
Did happy fancies shapen her employ ; 
But if I touched a bush, or scarcely stirred, 
All in a moment stopt. I watched in vain : 
The timid bird had left the hazel bush, 
And at a distance hid to sing again. 
Lost in a wilderness of listening leaves, 
Rich Ecstasy would pour its luscious strain, 
Till envy spurred the emulating thrush 
To start less wild and scarce inferior songs ; 
For while of half the year Care him bereaves, 
To damp the ardour of his speckled breast ; 
The nightingale to summer’s life belongs, 
And naked trees, and winter’s nipping wrongs, 
Are strangers to her music and her rest. 
Her joys are evergreen, her world is wide - 
Hark! there she is as usual - let’s be hush - 
For in this black-thorn clump, if rightly guest, 
Her curious house is hidden. Part aside 
These hazel branches in a gentle way, 
And stoop right cautious ’neath the rustling boughs, 
For we will have another search to day, 
And hunt this fern-strewn thorn-clump round and round ; 
And where this reeded wood-grass idly bows, 
We’ll wade right through, it is a likely nook : 
In such like spots, and often on the ground, 
They’ll build, where rude boys never think to look - 
Aye, as I live ! her secret nest is here, 
Upon this white-thorn stump ! I’ve searched about 
For hours in vain. There! put that bramble by - 
Nay, trample on its branches and get near. 
How subtle is the bird ! she started out, 
And raised a plaintive note of danger nigh, 
Ere we were past the brambles ; and now, near 
Her nest, she sudden stops - as choking fear, 
That might betray her home. So even now 
We’ll leave it as we found it : safety’s guard 
Of pathless solitudes shall keep it still. 
See there! she’s sitting on the old oak bough, 
Mute in her fears ; our presence doth retard 
Her joys, and doubt turns every rapture chill. 
Sing on, sweet bird! may no worse hap befall 
Thy visions, than the fear that now deceives. 
We will not plunder music of its dower, 
Nor turn this spot of happiness to thrall ; 
For melody seems hid in every flower, 
That blossoms near thy home. These harebells all 
Seem bowing with the beautiful in song ; 
And gaping cuckoo-flower, with spotted leaves, 
Seems blushing of the singing it has heard. 
How curious is the nest ; no other bird 
Uses such loose materials, or weaves 
Its dwelling in such spots : dead oaken leaves 
Are placed without, and velvet moss within, 
And little scraps of grass, and, scant and spare, 
What scarcely seem materials, down and hair ; 
For from men’s haunts she nothing seems to win. 
Yet Nature is the builder, and contrives 
Homes for her children’s comfort, even here ; 
Where Solitude’s disciples spend their lives 
Unseen, save when a wanderer passes near 
That loves such pleasant places. Deep adown, 
The nest is made a hermit’s mossy cell. 
Snug lie her curious eggs in number five, 
Of deadened green, or rather olive brown ; 
And the old prickly thorn-bush guards them well. 
So here we’ll leave them, still unknown to wrong, 
As the old woodland’s legacy of song.

  • Well done NE ! This is crucially important, even more so because BTO have just published the headline results of the national nightingale survey and its shocking to see that, whilst still strong in the South East, Nightingale have suffered further serious losses even since the start of the new atlas in 2007, and they are now hanging on by a thread in counties like Herefordshire and Gloucestershire. far from destroying key nesting areas, its time to be pushing Defra much harder to focus down on getting more woods into the right sort of management - following up on the excellent work RSPB and FC have been doing in partnership.

  • Great news and as an SSSI it should be outside the scope of biodiversity offsetting if the proposals are ratified so should be protected for the foreseeable future.

  • That is great news Martin. While we feel, rightly, we should congratulate Natural England' senior management on their decision to up hold the standing of the SSSI we must also congratulate the RSPB and BTO for highlighting the importance of this Chattenden Woods and Lodge Hill area for nature. Without these actions and leading the "fight" for its status I am sure it would have slipped through unrecognised for its importance.