The nation may be in lockdown, but the birds’ breeding season doesn’t stop for anything and neither, apparently, do HS2 Ltd and their contractors.

Colin Wilkinson, Senior Conservation Officer for RSPB shares the latest on HS2 ... 

At Broadwells Wood in Warwickshire, HS2 Ltd’s contractors are continuing to clear ancient woodland at the worst possible time of year. It’s technically legal, but against all common sense and best practice. At least one local resident has kept an eye on events as part of their daily permitted exercise under the Covid-19 restrictions. What they’ve seen and heard has caused them to raise some questions of HS2 Ltd. They were kind enough to copy those questions to us, the Woodland Trust and other organisations in early April.

All they wanted to know from HS2 Ltd was whether an exclusion zone reported to have been put in around an active tawny owl’s nest really was in place, and if so what radius that exclusion zone extended out to. With the sad voice of experience, the local resident wrote, “I have already had the experience of discovering habitats and trees have been cleared before HS2 had set an exclusion zone in place, or while an exclusion zone was in place and I do not want this to happen again.” The email concluded, “I was told by HS2 that someone would get back to me to confirm the exclusion zone was in place. This has not happened.”

Reasonable questions, we think, that were asked in late March and repeated and reinforced by our Woodland Trust colleagues in a separate enquiry. The continued lack of a reply to either the local resident or the Woodland Trust is poor, but what’s really odd is that HS2 Ltd seem to be unhappy talking to the Woodland Trust at all about birds rather than trees.

 Now, if it makes HS2 Ltd more comfortable answering bird-related questions if they are raised by a charity with ‘birds’ in its name, then we’re happy to help our Woodland Trust colleagues by repeating them. But it would be more sensible if HS2 Ltd just got on with supplying prompt and full answers to reasonable questions wherever they come from without trying to categorise questions (or those asking them) into ‘birds’, ‘trees and ‘other’ issues. Newsflash, HS2 Ltd, but that’s not how ecology works. The ball’s in your court.

The possible fate of a single tawny owl nest is a worry. The bigger issue here though is one of trust. Right now, under the Covid-19 restrictions, HS2 Ltd and their contractors are operating with an unusual degree of freedom from scrutiny (both official and unofficial) that means we largely have to trust their actions to be legally and morally right. But we’re not getting a lot of reassurance of that, with woodland soils being translocated at the wrong time of year, ancient woodlands being cleared at the wrong time of year, and a lack of openness when it comes to answering reasonable questions about such basic things as how far back they have stayed from an active tawny owl nest.

Simply not breaking any laws is not good enough for a project that is claimed as “one of the most environmentally responsible infrastructure projects ever delivered in the UK”. For this to be true, those of us with concerns about HS2 should not need to press for specific legal assurances and undertakings about basic safeguards that should be covered by normal best practice and wildlife law. Sadly, on current experience we might be left with little choice when it comes to future phases of HS2.

While staying within the Government’s Covid-19 guidelines, if local residents do see HS2 contractors acting in ways that cause concern have a look at our 13 February blog for some guidance that may help you decide what to do.