COP26: The woodland ark

The wood threatened by the Norwich Western Link road.
The wood threatened by the Norwich Western Link road. Photo by Iain Robinson.

The woodland I own with my wife and daughters has a way of pulling me out of the everyday world. Its ancient oaks, which ring it like defensive towers, live time differently to us humans. If you spend time under their canopy, you begin to feel it differently. Wood time, outside of the day-to-day, away from the rush of traffic, tricks you into spending longer than planned in its company. On short winter days, with the sun low, I’ve found myself interrupted from the task of cutting and splitting logs, by the sense of being watched, sometimes a deer moving ghost-like through the undergrowth, sometimes the wood itself, alert and shifting.

The ark and the lifeboat

English oak trees are life. The older an oak becomes the more alive it is. Lichen blooms across the furrows of its bark. As the tree starts to show the signs of age – dead wood, broken branches, splits, fissures, flaking bark – it becomes more attractive to insects, birds, and bats as a home. An oak has the potential to host over two thousand different species. In the era of biodiversity crisis, each ancient or veteran oak is an ark.

My wood is a section of a larger woodland area, divided into smaller wood lots owned by woodland enthusiasts like me. It sits in the Wensum valley, adjacent to the Wensum flood plain, which feeds an area of wet woodland much frequented by migratory birds. The valley is a wonderfully unspoilt area consisting of old woodlands, wet pastures, undulating hills, and traditional farmland. The River Wensum itself is a Special Area of Conservation, and a Special Site of Scientific Interest, one of England’s rare and precious chalk streams. Norfolk County Council plan to build a dual carriageway through all this; the 3.8 mile, £198 million, Norwich Western Link. It will destroy my wood in the process.

An English oak tree is a lifeboat, carrying survivors. Listed as Near Threatened on the global IUCN Red List, the Barbastelle bat forms its maternity roosts under the loose bark of old oak trees. It breakfasts over the deciduous wet woods and then goes out hunting over the wet pastures of the River Wensum. Independent research has identified a nationally important cluster of maternity colonies, a super colony, in this area. The road will destroy the home woodlands of at least one of these colonies and will fragment their existing habitat.

Biodiversity and climate

The crises in biodiversity and climate are interrelated. Research has indicated mature deciduous woodland locks up carbon from the atmosphere at a far greater rate than saplings. When old woodland is cut down, the carbon that has taken centuries to be stored is released from the trees and soils. The destruction of woodland habitat has the double effect of exacerbating the climate crisis and destroying much needed complex habitat for our beleaguered wildlife.

Barbastelle bat
Barbastelle bat. Photo by Iain Robinson.

Norfolk County Council have declared Norfolk “car county” and have claimed that the impact of the road on biodiversity can be compensated but fail to mention that ancient and veteran trees are considered under planning law to be irreplaceable and thus their loss cannot be mitigated. They fail to mention that rare and protected species such as the barbastelle bat are not covered by DEFRA’s biodiversity net gain metric, currently being abused by road developers all over the country to excuse habitat destruction, and much mentioned in relation to the Norwich Western Link project. The evidence that underpins such ecological mitigation is often flawed and insufficient, recent research suggests. The mitigation methods described – green bridges, wildlife tunnels, bat boxes and so on – are largely untested, and there is already a poor track history of protecting the Barbastelle, the bat bridges along the Norwich Northern Distributer Road (NDR) having failed to work according to experts since the road opened.

The council has also claimed that the Norwich Western Link would reduce carbon emissions, a claim seemingly made on the assumed uptake of Electric Vehicles by the driving public. Such claims fail to mention the fact that carbon-fuelled vehicles are likely to remain on our roads in significant numbers for the next two decades. They also fail to mention the carbon cost of the manufacture of the new electric vehicles, the long-term loss of carbon sink habitat, the significant amount of carbon embodied in the concrete and tarmac of the road itself, and the carbon cost of construction. They fail to mention that new roads unlock land for more housing development, leading to more cars, and more traffic. It all adds up.

The cumulative impacts

The Norwich Western Link is not the only major road project in Norfolk. There are the A47 dualling schemes, with more likely to follow, and the upgrading of the Thickthorn junction between the A11 and A47. These schemes tend to be considered in isolation but, considered together, the accumulative impacts they have on the natural world and our climate are not to be taken lightly. Norfolk County Council seem to think it a game. They probably assume rightly that they can hoodwink the planning authorities and government agencies into deciding that their token gestures towards the environment are enough.

The alternative

Don’t believe the greenwash. The English oak is an ark and a lifeboat, and we are the survivors. We cut each tree at our peril. It is time we left important woodland, protected species, and designated habitats, free from the threat of road development and considered changing the way we approach transport instead. Electric vehicles, if you can afford one, are part of the solution, but fewer journeys, more shared trips, a greater reliance on and investment in green public transport, will do away with the need for yet more new roads, and leave us with a county and a countryside worth passing on to future generations.

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