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HS2, the high-speed railway will cost the UK many of its ancient woodlands

HS2 is a high-speed railway designed to boost low carbon travel in the UK. However, its construction is causing major destruction to ancient woodlands.

The HS2 high-speed railway aims to connect major economic hubs in the UK, opening regional markets and attracting both investment and job opportunities. Why is the project, which received parliamentary approval for Phase 1 in February 2017, so controversial then? A combination of substantial additional costs and the destruction of ancient woodlands is part of the problem.

Wild garlic in bloom in woods in the UK
Woodlands cover around 10 per cent of the UK’s surface © Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The route of the HS2 high-speed railway

The building works will be divided into Phase 1, 2a and 2b, connecting London to Birmingham, London to Crewe and finally branching to reach Manchester and Leeds. Spanning 560 kilometres, the network will allow trains to travel up to 400 kilometres per hour, faster than any other European trains. With an original budget of 34 billion pounds, i.e. over 44 billion US dollars, and estimated returns of 2.50 pounds (3.20 dollars) for every every (1.30 dollars) invested, HS2 should bring large economic benefits to the UK economy.

However, the projected costs have already risen to 106 billion pounds, equal to 138 billion dollars, due to a five-year delay mainly caused by significantly more difficult ground conditions than initially expected. The global coronavirus pandemic has also sparked debate on the usefulness of such an ambitious railway, but HS2 minister Andrew Stephenson has stated that current trends in travel will not last in the long-term and that the railway still holds strategic value. Additionally, the trains used on this high-speed line are estimated to be 17 times more carbon efficient than flying, seven times more carbon efficient than cars and two times more carbon efficient than current trains.

High Speed 2 Rail Line
The planned HS2 route from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds

The impact on ancient woodlands

However, the seemingly positive effects that HS2 could have might be overshadowed by its negative impacts. According to the Woodland Trust, the UK’s largest woodlands conservation trust, 108 ancient woodlands are at risk of being damaged or lost, with an area the size of Manchester planned to be covered in concrete. Although HS2 Ltd., the public body in charge of developing the project, has promised a 9 million dollar fund to restore old woods and plant new ones, it would take decades for these to reach the maturity needed for displaced wildlife to return.

Ancient woodlands offer a vital haven for many endangered species, as well as more common ones. These precious habitats are known as being “ancient” because they’ve been present since at least 1600 (1750 in Scotland) and contain veteran trees, rich soils, plenty of fungal and invertebrate life as well as large quantities of deadwood. The accumulation of the latter across the centuries results in the formation of high quality soil that can support vast colonies of fungi, which in turn promote plant and animal life.

The soil itself is an irreplaceable component of what makes ancient woodlands so precious. While once prolific – 15 per cent of the UK used to be covered in these wild areas in the 11th Century – they currently occupy only account for 2.4 per cent of the country’s surface. To add to the direct damage to wildlife, the fragmentation of suitable habitats means that many species of insects, birds and mammals are at constant risk of isolation. Building a massive railway such as HS2 will cut across many already fragmented habitats.

Woodlands view from the soil
Ancient woodlands are home to precious trees, wildlife and soil ecosystems that support many species © Sebastian Unrau/Unsplash

Affected communities

Aside from the ecological damage that HS2 will bring, it will also cause major disruptions to many communities. In South Cubbington in Warwickshire residents have expressed concern over the planned carving of a hill to allow a cutting wider than a motorway to pass through it. The Cubbington Action Group Against HS2 was formed to create an organised protest against the project.

Many people have enjoyed the peace brought by the woodlands all their lives, walking their dogs, exercising and strolling through the understory. Not only will the destruction of a sizeable proportion of the hill and wood render this impossible, the works needed to build the train line and the following high speed trains will undoubtedly affect the surrounding area. Many others communities like Weeford near Lichfield and Hillingdon in the borough of London borough, have also the protest against this major project.

Along its route is also the 250 year-old Cubbington pear tree, voted “tree of the year” by the Woodland Trust in 2015. Locals began a peaceful protest against the HS2 in this area, where paths and roads have already been shut in preparation for construction works. HS2 planners have pledged to take cuttings from this heritage pear tree with the goal of propagating it and maintaining its legacy. Despite these steps in the right direction, the company seems not to have considered that pear trees take multiple decades before reaching maturity and even longer to become important features for wildlife.

Local school protests HS2
A local school protests the HS2 railway © Sjim/Flickr

It’s evident that this controversial train network will bring major change to the British landscape. The benefits brought by its construction might be outweighed by the damage it will do the countryside and its residents, both wild and human. Planners have made promises to reduce the impacts on the environment, but these will at best be mitigations, not reversals of the damage done. The value to wildlife that ancient woodland habitats bring is hard to measure, especially in terms directly relatable to the monetary value placed on HS2. However, in a time of great environmental concern and need for urgent action, it seems clear that their value goes beyond economic gain.

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