The RSPB’s Tony Whitehead considers a new Wildlife Trusts Report published today that details the effects of HS2 on nature … 

What’s the damage? Why HS2 will cost nature too much' is a report published by the Wildlife Trusts today that leaves little doubt about the potential impact of HS2 on wildlife. It provides an excellent summary of evidence and supports the idea that this scheme needs a fundamental rethink given the ecological emergency we are facing 

The report’s numbers are sobering. The construction of HS2 is a risk to three Special Areas of Conservation and two Ramsar sites – designations of the highest value in Europe and globally. Further it could affect 31 Sites of Special Scientific Interest and twenty Local Nature Reserves – designations that describe our UK wildlife crown jewels. And more locally, the proposed line could put at risk a staggering 693 local wildlife sites with a total area of almost 10,000 hectares 

 Beyond the effect on designated sites, the line will also fragment landscapes for the nature that depends on them. It will cut through four Nature Improvement Areas and 22 Living Landscapes – areas in which Sir John Lawton’s dream (as expressed in the ground breaking 2010 Making Space for Nature report) of “bigger, better, more joined up” places for nature are being brought to life.  

Putting on one side the much-discussed impacts of construction and operation on UK carbon emissions, these bald facts about HS2’s potentially devastating impact on nature demand attention. 

But where this starts to become personal, is where attention falls on HS2’s impacts on individual living things. Of course, trees have been the subject of many a headline, and indeed the line does seem to many an eye to have been plotted on an English ancient woodland dot-to-dot drawing. The Wildlife Trust report though goes much further, and names many of the individual animal species effected.  

Personally, the one that caused me to pause was the likely impact of HS2 on barn owls. 

This ghostly bird is always a delight to chance on, and our countryside is enriched by its nocturnal presence. Its fortunes have varied over the years, between 1932 and 1985 numbers fell by 70%. Barn owls have a complex relationship with humans and agriculture, and these declines followed farm intensification, in which they lost nest space (e.g. through barn conversion) and hunting habitat. However, populations stabilised in the 1990s and the bird is holding its own, albeit at lower levels than historically. But its status is precarious and reliant on sympathetic management of the countryside. 

The current report on HS2 makes clear that the line is not sympathetic to barn owls. The key impact is very direct. When operating, trains will strike and kill birds. This will potentially affect any birds nesting near to the railway, and HS2 Ltd’s own environmental report on Phase 1 described this as a nationally significant risk to barn owl populations. Phase 2 would simply add to that risk. 

There has been some discussion of reducing this impact through fencing, but as the Wildlife Trusts’ report says, “barn owls tend to drop down over the other side of fences which is why strikes are still common on roads.”   

The British Trust for Ornithology have recommended the creation of high-quality habitat within 3-15km of the line. However, the only response from HS2 Ltd with respect to this has been to offer new barn owl boxes. This is wholly inadequate. It doesn’t help owls with current territories close to the line, or address habitat loss caused by HS2. Nor does it guarantee that new boxes will be sited in areas with plenty of good quality habitat for the owls to hunt over: having one without the other, won’t work. 

A rethink is needed.  

A rethink for the sake of barn owls for sure. But also, for all the other wildlife documented in today’s report. I urge you to read it… and then support all those fighting to prevent the potentially devastating impact of this railway on nature.