HS2-thumbnail
All photos by the author.

The Battle to Save the UK's Ancient Woodland from a High Speed Train

Protesters demonstrating against HS2 say a new commuter train line won't be necessary in a post-pandemic world.
November 26, 2020, 9:00am

“At an HS2 protection camp, you’re always aware [an eviction is] imminent. You never quite know when it will happen, but you do know it’ll happen at first light.”

I’m in Jones’ Hill Wood, Buckinghamshire, chatting with an activist nicknamed Pigeon. The ancient woodland we’re standing in is said to have inspired Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr Fox, and is home to bats, badgers, foxes and, until a month ago, tree houses occupied by climate protesters opposed to the construction of the HS2 high-speed train line. However, an eviction in early October saw these forcefully removed.

The landscape here has changed since then: a metal fence cuts straight through the middle of the trees, sectioning off the area due to be felled for Phase 1 of HS2, which will connect the north of England to the south. The construction of the train line is split into three phases; only Phase 1, between London and Birmingham, has been given Royal Assent.

HS2 aims to rebalance the UK economy by bringing jobs and investment to the Midlands and the North. It also looks to provide more rail capacity by creating space for rail freight services and reducing overcrowding, claiming that “demand for travel has almost doubled over the past 20 years”.

Advertisement

“However, what flimsy case there was before COVID-19 is destroyed in a post-pandemic environment,” says Steve Masters, a West Berkshire district counsellor for the Green Party. “Commuting has fallen off a cliff.”

Jones_Hill_Wood.jpg

Jones' Hill Wood.

HS2 is on track to cost the taxpayer £170 billion, and with fares projected to set passengers back by between £180 to £240, the campaign group HS2 Rebellion has argued that “only the elite will be able to afford tickets”.

“It’s disgusting, the sheer amount of taxpayer money that is expected to be spent on this project, when you think about what else it could be used for,” says Masters, reiterating an HS2 Rebellion slogan: “NHS, not HS2”. 

Alongside the financial toll, green campaigners warn that the railway line will devastate sections of important wild land and the wildlife that lives there, destroying carbon-capturing areas in the process. As Amelia, an activist at the Jones’ Hill camp, says, “This is our Amazon.”

HS2 says it aims to create sustainable, climate-resilient transport infrastructure and cut carbon emissions from the UK transport sector. However, according to Masters, “they’re operating under the false guise of green transport”.

Even after its projected 120-year lifespan, say several green groups, HS2 will still produce a net increase in greenhouse gas emissions, while the Wildlife Trust reports that 796 crucial wildlife sites are at risk from HS2’s construction.

Amelia_Activist.jpg

Amelia, an HS2 activist.

HS2 PROTECTION CAMPS

The fight against HS2 has been going for the past ten years, but the campaign has recently gained more traction. Three years on from when the first protection camp was set up at Harvil Road, just outside London, 2020 has seen camps springing up in locations along the proposed railway route in an attempt to halt construction work. 

Much of the environmental concern revolves around damage to ancient woodland, which only amounts to 2.4 percent of land cover in the UK. It’s believed that 63 sites – amounting to 57.9 hectares – will be directly affected, with another 45 suffering secondary effects, such as disturbance, noise and pollution.

Advertisement

“By definition, ancient woodlands are sites where the soil has laid undisturbed since at least 1600,” says Dee Smith at the Woodland Trust. “But in reality, some can go back as far as the Ice Age. They’ve evolved over centuries to form complex ecosystems.” 

“We don’t have much ancient woodland left in this country,” says one Buckinghamshire local I speak to. “To chop it down in the middle of a climate crisis is ridiculous.”

To compensate for the habitat loss, HS2 is attempting to translocate these woodlands and plant new trees. “But there’s little evidence that translocation works,” says Luci Ryan, an ecologist at The Woodland Trust. “When described, it sounds as if the trees will be carefully dug up and moved to another site. But it doesn’t work like that. You just fell the woodland and scrape the soil up, dump the soil on another site and plant the coppiced tree trunks on top of that.”

Kai_Activist.jpg

Kai, an HS2 activist.

For protester and woodland ecologist Kai, this is a bit like “putting a frog in a blender, pouring it out and asking it to hop”.

“I’m willing to be imprisoned for my actions,” says Steve, who spent three days living in the last tree house standing at Jones’ Hill. “Our Prime Minister pledged to protect the biodiversity of the planet, yet at the same time supports HS2.”

The core protest group at Jones’ Hill' wants to stop construction altogether. “It’s not simply about cutting down trees or getting in the way of a train line,” says Pigeon. “It’s a symbol of resistance against the government and corporate greed – profit being put before people and planet.”

Advertisement

If the project cannot be stopped, then campaigners at least want the route to be improved. “It’s the 21st century,” says Luci Ryan. “We should be capable of designing a railway line and protecting the environment – they shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.”

Activist_Look_Out.jpg

A look-out at an HS2 activist camp.

‘HEAVY-HANDED’ EVICTIONS

HS2 subcontract National Eviction Team (NET) bailiffs to evict protesters from the land they own or have the right to, under compulsory purchase powers.

“It felt like an invasion, seeing the bailiffs storm across the field at dawn,” says Pigeon. “They remove the roof of the treehouse first. If they can’t get at the person inside, they remove the contents. There was a situation here where a protester was left in the canopy without the things they needed to keep warm and fed. You’re then brought down very heavy-handedly.” 

Paul Powlesland, a barrister who represents environmental activists, says, “There has been aggression shown on behalf of the NET that I struggle to see justified under legal force.”

In October, it was reported that four NET bailiffs were suspended following allegations of a serious assault on activists while off duty. The confrontation, METRO reports, is currently being investigated by police, and left one of the activists, Alex, hospitalised with a broken jaw. 

While at the Ramada Warwick hotel car park, the activists claim they found their exit blocked by a vehicle occupied by NET bailiffs. “They wanted to fight us,” alleges Alex. “We made it clear we were non-violent activists – I’ve done my de-escalation training. But one of them got out, opened the door and punched me in the face at least three times.”

Advertisement

A spokesperson for the NET said, “We are aware of an incident which is being investigated by the police. This incident took place after the individuals concerned had finished work for the day. They were not engaged in any activity for the National Eviction Team at the time.”

“To me, it seems as if there’s one law for HS2 and another for everyone else,” says Powlesland. He described the NET as “lawless thugs” in a High Court case, after an eviction where, he argues, there was a clear breach of section 6 of the Criminal Law Act 1977.

“HS2 employed the NET to smash the doors down of a garage [where protesters had made their base], without a court order,” he explains. Powlesland attempted to apply for an injunction against HS2, but didn’t succeed.

“We need to ask whether we want the NET occupying these two positions,” he says. “When you have them enforcing court orders on the one hand and, on the other, acting obviously unlawfully, it undermines respect for the rule of law.”

In response, an HS2 spokesperson commented, “The eviction was from land that is legally possessed by HS2. High Court Enforcement Officers lawfully removed trespassers from land acquired by HS2 Ltd in order to commence construction of the railway. They are able to use minimum force to do this under powers granted by the High Speed Rail (London - West Midlands) Act 2017 and using self-help under common law on behalf of a landowner.”

XR_Bats.jpg

THREAT TO RARE SPECIES AND LOCAL RESIDENTS

In October, independent ecologists found evidence of barbastelle bats – one of the UK’s rarest species – living in Jones’ Hill Wood. Currently, HS2 doesn’t have the correct licence to disturb these roosts, and to do so would be illegal. 

An HS2 spokesperson said that, since the eviction of the protesters, “our contractors have conducted bat surveys within HS2 possessed land and found no evidence of roosting bats. It has therefore been assessed by our contractors that no licence is required.”

Advertisement

However, ecologists understand that the appropriate season to do these surveys is the summer, explains Rob Mileto, one of the independent ecologists, “as, currently, bats will be hibernating”.

Another issue, as the Woodland Trust pointed out, is the installation of high-powered security lights in the wood. “Bats are creatures of the night,” says Mileto. “If you shine a light where it lives, it won’t come out, and if it doesn’t eat, it’ll die.”

HS2 says the security lights were installed because of the threat from protesters camped next to the worksite. They argue that the trespassing on HS2 land delayed the bat surveys, and that any bats present would have also been disturbed by the protesters living in tree houses. 

“Before we told them the bat roost was there, all the surveys we had access to were from 2013. A typical bat survey is only valid for two to three years,” says Mileto. “The protesters only went into the wood a year ago. HS2 could have gone in before that.”

Away from the rare species and delicate ecosystems currently at risk, local residents are also feeling the effects of HS2.

Clive Higgins owns Rosehill Farm in Buckinghamshire. He’s worried that Poor’s Piece – an ancient woodland dating back to the 1500s, and part of his property – will be felled to make way for the train line

HS2 Ltd has already claimed four acres of his land under compulsory purchase powers, but he believes more is at risk. In March, when bailiffs seized the land, they blocked off the road access to a 13-acre piece. “We’ve got two men guarding it,” says Clive, “and we can’t get in there with agriculture equipment.”

“When I purchased the farm in 1983, the land had been degraded by agriculture abuse,” he says. “We set about rejuvenating it all – planting trees, hedgerows and wildflower meadows. I’d created a beautiful example of what the British countryside could be. My reward for this was to have HS2 come in and kick it apart.”

In 2018, Western Power Distribution dug a trench through Clive’s field for cables for a future HS2 substation. They both agreed he’d complete the reparations and they’d pay him back. “However, HS2 called to say they had to do it, but never did,” Clive explains. “It remains an area with sunken patches, and we cannot control weed infestation. I tidied it up the best I could.”

Advertisement

Clive says he’s still awaiting compensation for this from HS2. 

An HS2 spokesperson said, “In order to continue to progress the work on HS2, we sometimes need to take temporary possession of sites. We fully understand how difficult it is for people impacted by the railway, and are committed to supporting landowners to ensure they receive the right level of compensation. In this case, compensation has been paid by HS2 Ltd for losses claimed by the landowner for land currently occupied and will address any further claims made.”

Trespass_Sign.jpg

WHAT COMES NEXT

As protesters continue to demonstrate and try to ward off construction, the Woodland Trust warns that “felling is due to start any day now” at Jones’ Hill Wood. HS2 has also this week opened bidding for the first works on Phase 2A, which will connect Birmingham to Crewe.

It would appear, then, that the environmental argument has not won over those behind the high-speed railway – a point that vexes Paul Powlesland. “What kind of country are we that we’re destroying huge amounts of nature and ancient woodland, just to get people a little over 20 minutes quicker to Birmingham?” he asks.

For now, protesters are urging others to do something a little more accessible to the general public than camping out in the trees of an ancient woodland: a letter writing campaign.

“It’s the government that must make the decision to stop HS2,” says Jo, an HS2 Rebellion spokesperson. “Everyone needs to write to their MPs to emphasise how, in a climate emergency and a global pandemic, we really can’t afford it – environmentally, or financially.”

@emmallphillips