Metrolink – unlinked from biodiversity concerns?

Dave Bishop, MCFly’s biodiversity reporter, has more questions about the Metrolink expansion and the rhetoric-reality gaps “on the ground.”  Dave will be attending the climate hustings tonight, at the Friends Meeting House, 6 Mount St.

Last summer (2011) I noticed that, because of the ground disturbance, in the vicinity of the St Werburgh’s Road Metrolink stop in Chorlton, hundreds of arable ‘weeds’ had appeared on the newly created embankments. The seeds of such plants can remain buried but viable for decades (perhaps even for a century or more) and disturbance, and subsequent exposure to sunlight, causes them to germinate. Many of these ‘weeds’ (not a scientific term!) would have been familiar to the old Chorlton farmers and their farm workers (they probably cursed such plants – but they were trying to maximise crop yields). There were poppies, wild pansies, wild radish, fumitories and many more. Many of these plants were recorded in the local floras from the mid-19th century and in the local collection in Manchester Museum Herbarium. And it was not just me that appreciated these profusely flowering plants – they were also covered in bees, butterflies and other pollinating insects.

When I returned, a few days later, with my note book and camera, to record all of this richness, I found that the whole bank had been sprayed with herbicide. This is, of course, the ‘traditional’ response to wildlife: “Not wanted here – kill it!”

But, as I’ve noted before, in their ‘Wildlife Habitat and Tree Replacement’ policy, Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) have published some very specific promises about ‘protecting’ and ‘enhancing’ local biodiversity and ‘mitigating’ for any losses, and given such promises perhaps they (or their contractors) should not have automatically reached for the herbicide spray in the situation that I have described above.

The loss of my weedy bank is just one of many losses that we have suffered, and are due to suffer, as a result of the recent and planned Metrolink extensions. The old railway cuttings between Chorlton and Old Trafford and Chorlton and East Didsbury had developed into rich wildlife habitats in the 40 to 50 years since they had been abandoned. Many species of native mammals (particularly bats), birds, amphibians and plants flourished in them. Some sections were flooded and provided good habitats for the amphibians (frogs, toads and newts) and several species of water plants; both of these groups are now locally scarce because of the very severe shortage of ponds and wetlands. The loss of these wildlife refuges is particularly catastrophic given that so much green space has been lost in this region over the last 20 years or so. In this period we have seen a laissez-faire approach to development which has led to the infilling of countless green spaces – including many large gardens.

But worse was, and is, to come; the line to the airport goes straight through the Lower Hardy Farm part of the Hardy Farm Site of Biological Importance (SBI) in Chorlton. I have known this site for nearly 40 years and considered its plant life to be particularly important. On the south side of the river a number of mature Beech trees, near Jackson’s Boat pub, have been destroyed and at Sale Water Park a large green space will be tarmaced over to create a 300 vehicle car park. The line will then run parallel with the M60 for some distance. In the 1990s much habitat, in this area, was lost as a result of motorway widening; now this transport corridor is to be made even wider. In a previous article I discussed the loss, or impending loss, of other mature trees in Chorlton and Wythenshawe.

So, what has TfGM done so far to “mitigate” for all of these losses and to “protect” and “enhance” what’s left? Well, as far as I can see, very little. A lot of trees have been planted (some very ineptly) and two or three cheap pond liners installed in some fairly inaccessible spots (one, in Withington, has been sited on top of a narrow embankment – hardly an ideal site for a pond!). It should be noted that the pond liners were installed up to two years after the amphibian habitats had been destroyed (what were the frogs etc. supposed to do in the meantime?).

But TfGM should be making far greater efforts. For example, in October 2011, DEFRA published some Indicators of Biodiversity in England (http://www.defra.gov.uk/statistics/environment/biodiversity/england-biodiversity-indicators/).

They concluded that: “Of those indicators for which it is possible to make a long-term assessment of change, the following 10 measures show a long-term deterioration: farmland birds, woodland birds, habitat specialising butterflies, wider countryside butterflies, bats, plant diversity in neutral grassland and boundary habitats and the extent of invasive species in freshwater and terrestrial environments [plus two more related to marine environments]”. I would suggest that most of these are relevant, in some way, to the impact of the Metrolink developments, and I imagine that it should be possible to develop similar indices of purely local relevance (I note, in passing, that nowhere does the DEFRA document mention planted trees!).

But TfGM does know precisely what it’s destroying. The policy document, mentioned above, states: “As part of the planning process for capital schemes (such as Metrolink extensions), comprehensive habitat surveys should be conducted, including specific surveys for protected species such as bats, badgers and voles. An Environmental Statement should be prepared for each scheme that includes measures to reduce the impact on biodiversity.”

From where I’m sitting it looks as though TfGM spends public money on having (independent) surveys conducted, ticks the box labelled “survey conducted”, files the survey report, destroys what the surveyor has found and then … well … plants some trees in ‘compensation’. It’s worth quoting the great woodland expert, Oliver Rackham here: “Planting trees is not synonymous with conservation; it’s an admission that conservation has failed.”

Increasingly concerned about these circumstances and a few more, which will be made plain below, I decided to ask TfGM a series of eight questions. I originally posed the questions to TfGM on the 28th February this year – but received no reply. I then tried sending the questions as Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. TfGM received my questions on 19th March and told me that only two of them qualified as FOI requests and would be answered within 20 working days (I’m still waiting and will follow the appropriate procedures).

The remaining six questions are as follows:

  1. Does TfGM intend to revise its biodiversity policies (e.g. ‘Wildlife Habitat and Tree Replacement Policy’) so that they fully conform with the principles contained in HM Government’s White Paper, ‘The Natural Choice: securing the value of nature’ (June 2011) (http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/natural/whitepaper/)?
  2. Given that TfGM controls so much land with wildlife habitat potential in Greater Manchester, why wasn’t it represented at the Greater Manchester Local Nature Partnership consultation workshop held at New Central Hall, in central Manchester, on 3rd February, 2012 (https://manchesterclimatemonthly.net/2012/02/13/a-local-nature-partnership-for-greater-manchester-maybe/)?
  3. When the Greater Manchester Local Nature Partnership is set up later in 2012 does TfGM intend to join and to take an active role?
  4. Given that so much local biodiversity has been lost in South Manchester as a result of the latest Metrolink extension does TfGM have any further plans (apart from recent tree planting and pond liner installation) to “mitigate” for these losses and to “protect” and “enhance” what remains?
  5. Given that TfGM is not listed as a partner in the ‘Manchester Biodiversity Action Plan, 2012 – 2016’ (https://manchesterclimatemonthly.net/2012/02/11/mcfly-02-the-biodiversity-action-plan-2012-16/), does TfGM intend to contribute to the achievement of the plan’s objectives?
  6. Is TfGM exempt from contributing to the plan’s objectives?

I suspect that I might have to wait a long time for any answers to these questions.

Dave Bishop, April 2012

About manchesterclimatemonthly

Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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