Rare bats last hope for HS2 protest at Jones’ Hill Wood

In 2019, the UK Government announced a non-binding Climate Emergency declaration and has made various verbal pledges to halt the massive loss biodiversity recorded in recent years. Yet colossal infrastructure schemes, such as HS2, the high-speed rail project linking London and the Midlands, persist in eradicating irreplaceable ancient woodland, swallowing billions of taxpayers’ funds, at a time of unprecedented national debt, and will take decades to complete before any carbon costs to deliver the project will be offset, if at all.

Jones’ Hill Wood is a four acre ancient woodland near Wendover, Buckinghamshire, within the Chiltern Hills AONB. The connection with the children’s story by Roald Dahl, and popular animated movie, Fantastic Mr Fox, has made this the symbolic and emotive focus of the struggle to save 108 woodlands threatened by the path of the HS2 bulldozer. However, the stakes have been raised by the recent discovery of the rare Barbastelle bat, which is vulnerable to extinction in UK. Protesters allege that HS2’s tree felling is illegal without first conducting the necessary surveys and applying for licences from Natural England. A legal team is preparing a case to hold to account both HS2 and Natural England, funded by donations of almost £25,000 to date.

I joined the Jones’ Hill Wood Earth Protectors camp as they devote themselves to resisting the construction of what many believe is a destructive and wasteful “vanity” project.

Under the leaden autumn sky last year, I arrived bearing gifts of firewood, vegetables and tins of pulses to meet Sue, a seasoned resident of the camp who was to be my introduction.  As we approached the anonymous stubble field in front of the occupied wood, it became spontaneously animated by our intrusion, sending around a dozen skylarks wheeling into the October sky. Although no battle lines were visible, the ubiquitous security guards clad in fluorescent orange (affectionately known as “carrots”) kept their menacing eye over what HS2 Ltd claims as its land. However, protestors contest this saying that no compensation has been paid to the farmer whose property was forcibly grabbed by compulsory purchase, and that those affected are often gagged by Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs), with the threat of reduction of any compensation paid.

Sue had been arrested the previous week for straying across the invisible line into HS2 territory. Happily, all charges had been dropped, thanks to a sympathetic magistrate. Nonetheless, she was careful not to step over the line and thus risk arrest for a negligible misdemeanour. I soon observed that the consequences of literally every move must be weighed and measured in this activism chess game.

A finger of wood smoke beckoned me to the heart of the camp, past sodden and bedraggled tents often covered by ragged tarpaulins flapping defeatedly in the wind. I was introduced to three camp stalwarts under their woodland pseudonyms: “Badger” a lad with a thick Salford accent, rufus “Fox” looking remarkably like his totem, and pallid, gangly “Osprey”. All had spent many months surviving in these woods, often in tree canopies before being hauled down during various “eviction” episodes.  I was invited to join them on a mushroom hunt to woodland nearby. I cautioned that it might be careless to consume fungi without expert knowledge.

“There’s no such thing as a careless mushroom expert…do you know why?” Osprey grinned languidly from his camouflaged hood.

On returning to the camp, we encountered a man introducing himself as a documentary maker. Although this character had all the archetypal appearance of an environmental protester, he seemed to have another agenda altogether. I subsequently became trapped in debate for the next hour or so, smoked-out like a kipper next to the camp fire, while he played devil’s advocate to the virtues and benefits that HS2 would engender.

“What about the fact that this project is now a white elephant with so mainly people now working from home, is estimated to cost at least 30 billion, and will trash this beautiful Chiltern valley forever?” I enquired.

“How many eggs do you have to break to make an omelette?” he retorted.

My feet were beginning to numb, and I needed to regain a sense of purpose, so excused myself by offering to chop logs. A short lesson was required in order to accomplish this task. Even so, my axe cheerfully bounced off a pile of unseasoned logs, apart from the posh ones I had brought from an M&S garage which split like a hot knife through butter.

Luckily, I was soon relieved of this task by a quiet young women going by the name of Willow, who invited me to assist with a bat survey. The rare Western Barbastelle Bat had been detected roosting in the ivy-clad line of beech trees which the proposed line would trample. This is one of seven species of bat found resident within the woods, and listed as Near Threatened Globally by the IUCN Red List and protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. As such, HS2 need to follow procedures to protect this endangered mammal by carrying out adequate surveys and applying to Natural England for appropriate licences for any “work” to take place. It seems that finally, there is an opportunity to hold HS2 to account and ensure that the law is upheld to protect this rare species and the ancient woodland they inhabit.

Not only was there great joy as we detected this rare bat but we were also treated to a mesmerising dance by a soprano and common pipistrelle bat, swooping and fluttering in blissful ignorance of the threats to their habitat. The skies darkened and a chill swiftly encircled the woods. As we dared to edge closer to disputed territory, we were immediately pounced on by a large “carrot” and ushered back to our arbitrary side of the field. Later, a blinding floodlight was positioned shining directly into the canopy on the pretext of “security”. Bats, of course, flee from light, and it is a criminal offence to recklessly or knowingly disturb a bat roost; another example of how HS2 consistently flout legislation put in place to protect wildlife.

I returned the next day to find myself in the thick of the action, in tow with Mule and Osprey, crossing the water-logged lanes to the threatened copse and Iron Age ancient monument known as Grimsditch. The menacing whine of chainsaws heralded the endgame for this majestic clump of beech trees as contractors cleared the understorey in preparation for felling.  The protestors had called the police to try and halt the destruction of important bat habitat, alleging that no proper survey had been undertaken let alone a licence issued for the work to proceed.

Events unfolded apace; reinforcements accumulated seemingly out of nowhere.   Mule on megaphone organised the rebellion. Next, the Heras fencing was rocked until it laid prostrate, allowing protestors to spill in and stop the work by sitting under the bare trunks now devoid of vegetation.  John, risking his career as an architect, took up the role of commanding officer, taunting the carrot army and their black-clad heavy-security mob, and repeating demands for the work to cease.

Rather than questioning the legality of the work being carried out and upholding wildlife protection law, the police arrested at least three protestors, including Mule and Osprey; who were handcuffed and bundled into an awaiting vehicle bound for Aylesbury police station. It appears that wildlife protection law and regulation are flimsy against the double jeopardy of politics and big construction in collusion, with the golden rule being “he who has the gold makes the rules”. I am also reminded of the term “rogueress” coined by the late, great folk singer Vin Garbutt, (meaning regress in disguise).

By the end of November, Grimsditch was reduced to a scarred morass, replete with the sad decapitated stumps of these dignified overlords of the valley. The Ecocide feels profane. Scientific prophecies forewarn that humanity has numbered years to decelerate the effects of indiscriminate, run-away climate change; not forgetting disastrous ash “dieback”, set to change our woodland landscapes for decades, if not centuries to come. How can such acts of ecological vandalism be justified in these circumstances? After all, our biodiverse ancient woodlands are our Amazon…..

Fast forward to March 2021, and Earth protectors are evicted from another in the chain of ancient woodlands at Leather Lane; to be sacrificed just to make space for a temporary road and car park! A Freedom of Information request to Natural England showed that no surveys or licence applications had been made by HS2. This group of trees is iconic in the local landscape prompting a huge turn-out of local residents on the day of expected felling. Lawyers acting for Jones’ Hill Earth Protectors have taken on the case to protect the Leather Lane oaks reminding HS2 in a stern letter of their legal obligations. An “ecologist” was observed inspecting the trees, as locals gathered in mourning and outrage at the unnecessary threat to their beloved avenue of oaks. As I write, I receive the news that the felling of these oaks began this week.

Recent rumours of the eviction of Jones’ Hill camp have, to date, amounted to nothing, but remind the Earth Protectors of their vulnerabilities. On hearing of the threats, many local residents, several of them hitherto reticent about getting involved, lent support, some even offering to “lock on” to trees to prevent felling. With local opposition growing, perception of the protest shifts from that of “marginal” environmental activists to “concerned citizens”.

I left the Jones Hill Wood full of admiration for the tenacity, dedication, and hardiness of these activists. It takes a special kind of person to stick out the cold wet winter in such makeshift conditions. These are the real heroes of conservation and we need to salute them; putting their lives and liberty on the line for a cause that many would regard as lost. I was left in no doubt of who had the moral high ground in this uphill struggle.

E Browne