High Speed Wild: The case for a new Wild Landscape through England

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.)

Finemere meadow

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.








About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in Ancient Woodland, biodiversity, HS2, rewilding and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to High Speed Wild: The case for a new Wild Landscape through England

  1. David Dunlop says:

    Hmmm. That’s going to be hard one to sell to the burghers of the City of Manchester – and even Wiganers may baulk!

  2. Miles King says:

    I was thinking primarily of the rural parts of the network Dave. Isn’t it due to go under Manchester in a long tunnel?

  3. David Dunlop says:

    Yes, Miles. That raises its own issues about the location of ventilation shafts, disposal of spoil, location of plant &c – there’s a lot of ancient and posibly ancient woodland to be tunnelled under, or near to, within the City – which belies its external “Cottonopolis” image! Also scope for enhancement of existing amentity greenspace and brownfield land.

    The biggest potentially negative impact in Ye Olde County Palatine of Lancaster is the proposed construction of a massive, 24-hour operational marshalling yard next to Abram Flash SSSI, (Wigan Borough, in the Leigh constituency of the Shadow Secretary of State for Health) which includes The Wildlife Trust for Lancashire, Manchester & North Merseyside’s Lightshaw Meadows nature reserve – so we’re currently taking it a bit personally there! http://www.lancswt.org.uk/places-to-see/lightshaw-meadows. Breeding ground nesting birds is the nub of the matter.

    • Miles King says:

      Thanks Dave – yes I read your webpage on Lightshaw Meadows. I was not saying I was in favour of the proposals, either in principle or as they stand. But if such a large scale linear infrastructure development project was going to proceed, it could provide the foundation for a really large scale, joined up and innovative nature scheme unlike anything previously attempted.

      • David Dunlop says:

        That’s our objective too, Miles; but the Devil will be in the detail, and we’re not at the ES stage for West Midlands to Greater Manchester & West Yorkshire, just at the inital consultation on a putative route. We hope we may be able to engage HS2 Ltd more positively on a 21st century vision of net gain for nature, and people’s access to same, in Phase 2 – provided HS2 Ltd doesn’t feel it has to rigidly duplicate its approach to Phase 1! We must also hope that Parliament will include the natural environment within the terms of reference for the Hybrid Bill Select Committee. Yasmin Quereschi, MP for Bolton South East is on that.

      • Miles King says:

        Thanks very much Dave

  4. I totally agree about making the most of opportunities, especially around linear transport developments. I don’t think most environmental consultants would have a job if they took the stance of ‘I don’t like it so I’m not going to have anything to do with it’.
    As to re-wilding the lowlands – I think some sort of coherent plan for creating areas/networks across the UK where nature can evolve without (too much) human intervention is going to be critical to adapting both to population growth and climate change pressures. I totally agree that such a large project would be the ideal place to start that process – although there is also a job of tempering how we sell it if we want to get the support it needs. Constantly talking of wolves and bears is more likely to put people off. While that might be an end game, let’s start with the Chillinghams (sold as native semi-wild cattle), red deer, wild boar and beavers – a whole lot less threatening. Linking all this to other land managed (or potentially managed) for nature would be key – not necessarily allowing the animals to roam but just to bound these areas.
    Well done for putting it forward – as HS2 is likely to go ahead in some fashion, let’s start making a bit of a firm push for it.

  5. Rob Seago says:

    Certainly the possibility of creating a long green corridor half way up the country is a very appealing one. However the rewilding aspect would be very problematic, even without the wolves and bears.

    Has anyone ventured the cost of:
    acquiring the land for a corridor, perhaps a kilometer wide.

    If it was retained in private ownership would we expect owners to let it follow a re-wilding path.
    What would be the cost of compensation?

    If it were to be maintained more like existing conservation sites how would we get it to be more
    useful than the topped field margins and bits and pieces that landowners are required now to
    get their money?

    Public access is always required for schemes with public funding, which may well compromise what we would like to do.

    So is there really anyway to get such a possibility even considered. I guess the most we will get is some tree planting, a few bits of land isolated by the line, cutting banks embankments and spoil heaps and quarries associated with the line.

    • Miles King says:

      All good questions Rob and thanks for your comment. If the worst case is that HS2 is built and all that is produced in the way of an environmental aspect to the scheme is a few million trees planted then we will have missed a great opportunity to produce something much bolder and for the longer term.

  6. Christopher says:

    Hi Miles,

    I’m new to your blog and I’m very impressed with what I’ve seen so far. I’m glad I’ve final,y come across someone who supports re-wilding AND supports introducing African elephants to the UK. I do believe that African elephants can survive the UK’s quite quite fine already. They are elephants in a sanctuary in Tennessee that do okay outside in the winter,

    George Monbiot has proposed introducing Asian elephants across Europe, something which I would support. I also believe that we should introduce the likes of rhinos and Lions into Europe, to provide a haven for them. Sounds very ambitious and perhaps a bit crazy, but we do need a conservation vision as bold and big as the challenge facing us.

    Who would have thought that HS2 would provide such an opportunity for Britain’s wildlife.


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