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I was part of a small 5 person RSPB team giving evidence in support of the Lodge Hill SSSI notification at an Extraordinary Natural England Board meeting.
The opposition were there in numbers – Medway Council (who had allocated 5000 housing units onto Lodge Hill as part of their now defunct Core Strategy); the Defence Infrastructure Organisation, who own the former engineering school site that is now an SSSI; Land Securities, who wanted to develop the site for housing and had already made a substantial investment in the site.
A whole bevvy of environmental consultants and others were available to push home their case for why the site should not be notified. I was surprised that any of them claimed to be making an independent assessment of the ecological value of the site.
Natural England specialists for grasslands, woodlands and Nightingales gave evidence in support of the notification.
There was some reasonably good-natured jostling for the good seats in a packed room and some friendly glances between the opposing sides.
The Board members questioned the officers and objectors closely and for prolonged periods. When we came to give our supporting evidence, Martin Harper (who blogs about the day here) gave an assured performance and I was able to hand him my ipad from which he read from the NVC users handbook on the perils of atypical vegetation. I was disappointed not to be questioned about the grasslands as I had much to add to what had been said.
When the Board came to debate whether to confirm notification of the site or not, the data on Nightingales was too strong and there was little to argue about the woodland. But the grassland got everyone hot and bothered. The issue was whether the grassland at Lodge Hill was MG5 or not. MG5 is what you might call traditional hay meadow, normally flowery and buzzing with bees and butterflies.
The grassland at Lodge Hill had been, let’s say, subject to military use by the Army for decades. I haven been to the site but as far as I can tell, instead of the usual mowing and grazing, these fields had been dug up, had scrub planted on them, then had it removed, been blown up, had concrete pads built, then removed, had been repeatedly driven over, possibly by tanks.
So hardly the typical life of a hay meadow. But, they have not been fertilised, herbicided, drained, re-seeded with ryegrass or any of the other things that have destroyed practically every other MG5 grassland in the country. So they approximate to MG5 – and are closer to it than any other grassland habitat. Of greatest importance these grasslands were unimproved, and this seemed to have been missed out of the arguments. And the juxtaposition of unimproved grassland with areas of scrub gave the site a whole added dimension of value for nature, that was entirely ignored by all present, other than as providing habitat for Nightingales.
The grassland would not behave, it would not fit into the NVC and it did not provide a good fit to the NVC floristic tables! This clearly rankled with the NE Board members – they wanted straight up and down, flower-filled Meadow; and they werent happy. Several said that it wasnt good enough, didnt conform to what a proper upstanding er stand of MG5 should look like, and should be removed from the citation. David McDonald (who recently recommended the badger cull not be extended – he was over-ruled) pointed out that although parts of the grasslands were clearly not MG5, other areas clearly were, and was it right to remove all of them from the SSSI? With some judicious chairing by outgoing NE chair Poul Christensen, the Board came round to agreeing to include the grassland interest after all. Hearts were definitely in mouths (well mine was).
The board approved the notification (with a minor amendment to exclude an archery club car park) with one dissenter, Joe Horwood who argued that the site was marginal in terms of its national importance, and notifying marginal sites devalued the whole SSSI system.
It struck me that the Board were comfortable arguing over the validity of BTO Nightingale counts and confidence limits, of extrapolating from site counts to uk population estimates, and even things like whether nightingale territories could be double counted.
But when it came to discussing the intricacies of vegetation they were all at sea. In a way this sums up where we are in conservation – we can deal with single species and their requirements, but when it comes to assemblages, or communities, and their multifaceted behaviour, the preference is to turn away, to avoid having to deal with it.
Thankfully the Board girded its collective loins and did the right thing.