Channel 4 News today ran a story about HS2Ltd contractors flying a falconer’s bird in a woodland in Warwickshire. The RSPB’s Tony Whitehead looks at the issues around this ... 

“We are facing a nature emergency and should be working to help nature, not chasing protected birds out of potential nesting habitat to make way for this development.” 
- Jeff Knott, RSPB Operations Director, Central and Eastern England

If a contractor has the landowner’s permission, there is no law broken by flying a hawk through a woodland to scare birds away from the site. But this is not the point.  

 In the first place, if HS2 Ltd think a hawk flying around is going to scare all the other birds away from nesting in the wood this spring and summer and leave them a clear run at demolishing the wood, then they’re wrong. This may come as a shock to HS2’s contractors, but there are almost certainly tawny owls, buzzards and sparrowhawks in that wood already, and guess what – somehow the whole bird community in that wood gets on with nesting anyway, every year. Why would a Harris hawk flying around make them desert the place? 

Alternatively, HS2 contractors might see flying the hawk as part of a future line of defence against claims that they have broken the law by intentionally destroying nests. If that’s so, then – HS2 contractors – please re-read the previous paragraph. It won’t work. 

Regardless of what steps are taken to try to clear a wood of nesting birds and enable HS2 contractors to claim immunity from the law, the most important point is that part of an ancient woodland is going to be destroyed. Broadwells Wood is one of 108 such ancient woodlands along the proposed route. It is a mix of oaks, birch, and ash with hazel coppice, holly and hawthorn. It also has bluebells, wood anemone and other plants typical of woodlands of this type. It’s worth remembering when we talk of ancient woodlands, we are talking about whole plant communities, not just the trees. And it is this whole community that is crucial. This delicate mix of species cannot be compensated for by “areas of new planting … provided in response to loss of ancient woodland”.  Ancient woodland is acknowledged by the Government (yes, the Government, no less!) as “irreplaceable”, so by definition, grubbing up of 3.6ha of this ancient woodland cannot be undone with compensation – once it’s gone, it’s gone forever. 

So, that’s not good. Then there’s then the question of the birds. If HS2Ltd demolish this woodland in the breeding season, it is difficult to see how they will not destroy active bird’s nests (by accident, perhaps, except what sensible person would expect to get away with cutting down a wood in the breeding season without destroying nests?)  As detailed here, under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981, it’s an offence intentionally to kill, injure or take any wild bird, or take or destroy their eggs or nest, or damage a nest, while that nest is in use or being built. 

 This whole issue for HS2Ltd could be avoided of course if they simply delayed their works until autumn or winter. But halting a project for the sake of “a few birds” I imagine is not an option that’s been seriously considered.  

But there is a more fundamental problem here, which blights this whole scheme. Trying to scare birds out of Broadwell Woods with nowhere alternative for them to go is one symptom. Much in the same way as is blocking barn owl nest boxes with no provision of suitable vole rich habitat in the places that the owls might move to.  

HS2 should have a world-class mitigation scheme, as Natural England boss Tony Juniper called for recently. Currently, it does not. And its construction will result in net loss of nature.  

The use of hawks in this Warwickshire woodland is symbolic of the contempt with which HS2Ltd is treating nature. In the words of RSPB Operations Director for Central and Eastern England Jeff Knott: 

“We are facing a nature emergency and should be working to help nature, not chasing protected birds out of potential nesting habitat to make way for this development.” 

If you would like to act, there are two things you can do. You can read our advice on how to report wildlife crime and tell the police (not us!) if you think HS2Ltd contractors might be breaking the law.  

Then, you can contact your MP.  The RSPB is currently asking its supporters to write to their MPs to ensure the new Environment Bill contributes to natures’ recovery, such as ensuring all developments are required to provide more nature than is lost. Find out more here.   

 Images: Ancient woodland in Warkshire marked for clearance to make way for HS2