HS2 is about to be given a big push forwards tomorrow when it will receive its second reading – and former Environment shadow Mary Creagh, now Shadow Transport SoS is supporting it. She will be eyeing a cabinet position after next May if the polls are right. I thought she was good at the Environment brief and I was sad that she left, but it was obviously a promotion to go transport. I have previously written about HS2 and am still unconvinced about the economic case, but if it is going to happen then it should be done as well as it can be.
Creagh, on behalf of the Shadow Cabinet, has come out in favour of HS2 in today’s Independent. She has also expressed support for a proposal published by The Wildlife Trusts, to create “The mother of all green corridors” alongside HS2. They are calling for a 1km wide zone either side of the rail route which would be newly created habitat. This would partly be to compensate for their estimate of 2,500ha of good quality wildlife habitat that will be lost during the construction of HS2. They want to see 15,000ha of new habitat created. They have also commissioned some costings – £78 million to create the habitat, £10.2M per annum to maintain it.
There is very little detail about what habitats would be created, other than headlines figures of 60% woodland, 25% grassland and 15% wetland.
I think this is great – The Wildlife Trusts operating in unison calling for something ambitious which could deliver a significant positive change for the environment. But I would like to suggest something a bit more radical, a bit more imaginative. Instead of paying for trees to planted, seed to be sown and so on, to create the habitats we are all familiar with from the past – wildflower meadows, oak woodlands, reedbeds for Bitterns, we need to think ahead about what the future countryside of England will look like under Climate Change.
We also have the opportunity to do some large-scale re-wilding across lowland England.
I would see the High Speed corridor as a core wild area and make a deliberate decision to not take an agricultural (modern or historic) approach to habitat creation or management.
Let’s re-introduce key ecosystem engineer species into the corridor – wild boar, beaver, lynx, elk, even Wolves. As Aurochs and Straight-tusked elephants are extinct, let’s see Przewalski’s horse and ancient breeds of cattle roaming wild (eg Chillingham White Cattle). As the climate does warm in the 21st Century, introduce African Forest Elephants (if there are any left by then.) when the climate is good enough for them (they made need a bit of help through the winter).
Planting trees is generally a waste of money – let the ancient woods within the corridor naturally spread out (one of my favourite Ancient Woods – Finemere Wood, lies immediately adjacent to HS2 and is now just a third of its former size in 1810.)
ancient meadow clearing at Finemere Wood (c) Miles King
Though it pains me to say so, not continuing to manage historic habitats such as wildflower meadows within the corridor means that they will change – but it’s a small sacrifice to make. They will act as sources of plants which can naturally colonise open areas maintained by the wild graziers.
It would be a great opportunity to take a Knepp Approach and let the system develop without any preconceived notions of what it should become.
The Core area could be connected to a wider network of wildlife areas in the surrounding countryside, but connections may need to be only semi-permeable, as the adjacent landowners may not wish to have their maize crops trampled by elephants.
HS2, if it does go ahead, will provide us with the greatest opportunity to give something back to Nature in a very long time. Let’s use that opportunity to help the Nature of the future.