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Exploring the wildlife impacts of East West Rail approach to city

Opinion: An independent ecologist has compiled a 27-page report into the environmental impact of East West Rail Company’s preferred southern route from Cambourne to Cambridge, and compared it to a northern option via Northstowe. Kevin Hand, who is vice president of Cambridge Natural History Society, explains his findings.

The northern East West Rail route is supported over the southern one by every organisation involved in wildlife and landscape protection in the area, including the Wildlife Trust in Cambridgeshire, the Woodland Trust, Cambridge Past, Present and Future and the Countryside Restoration Trust.

Water vole emerging from a drainage pipe.. (47707361)
Water vole emerging from a drainage pipe.. (47707361)

The government body charged with protecting nature, Natural England, has said: “We are concerned at the apparent lack of an environmental justification for the discounting of route options to the north of Cambridge.”

It is important to note that the consultation only asks people to consider the southern route, not the northern one. The route is only shown as a thin line on a map; it does not include the inevitable access roads, waste dumps, machinery parks and other infrastructure that will be needed nearby. It does not include impacts such as air pollution, noise and light pollution, toxic contamination, or changes to water quality and quantity.

Crucially it does not include any of the impact of the massive housing developments planned for the future. A stated aim of the OxCam Arc mega-project, of which this is a part, is to locate new development next to new transport infrastructure. A proposal from the developer Thakeham – which does not yet have any planning status – is for 25,000 homes, five times the size of Cambourne, in the Barrington area. Many other proposed new towns will follow, completely changing the character of the area and its villages. One million new homes are proposed within the OxCam Arc area by 2050 (one third of the total proposed for the whole of the UK).

East West Rail is already being dubbed Cambridgeshire’s own HS2.

If the project does go ahead, the environmental impact of the southern route will be much greater, and will have negative impacts on Cambridgeshire’s internationally important chalk streams, with their populations of brown trout, water vole and otter, and the River Cam itself, already severely under pressure from water extraction for other new developments.

There are only 225 chalk streams in the world and five will be affected by the southern route:

  • The River Cam at Hauxton
  • The Rhee or Cam at Harston
  • The Riddy at Hauxton
  • Coldhams Brook
  • Hobson’s Brook, which flows from the Nine Wells Local Nature Reserve into the city and beside the Botanic Garden, and was the first source of fresh drinking water for Cambridge.

The West Cambridgeshire Hundreds Living Landscape is where the Cambridgeshire Wildlife Trust is linking ancient woodlands like Hardwick Wood that have survived for hundreds of years. The proposed route will form a barrier for wildlife, and for people from Cambridge and its many new developments, no longer able to walk and cycle from the city to explore these areas or the associated Cambridge Boulder Clay and woodland priority area identified as part of the Cambridge Nature Network by CWT and CPPF.

East West Rail Company's proposals for the approach to Cambridge. Map: East West Rail Company (47707364)
East West Rail Company's proposals for the approach to Cambridge. Map: East West Rail Company (47707364)

Our chalk hills and grassland are one of the UK’s priority habitats, in particular Haslingfield Chalk Pit and its associated landscape which has thousands of orchids – including the nationally rare man orchid – and is widely valued and used by local communities.

The Bourn Brook is a site internationally famous for its success in restoring rare water vole populations and reducing introduced American mink, and sits alongside the work of the Countryside Restoration Trust at Westfield Farm, where over 20 years of research work have resulted in growing populations of rare farmland birds and plants.

There are many species of rare and endangered wildlife, including barn owls, lapwings, otters, water voles, badgers and bats. As just one example the globally rare barbastelle bat has a maternity colony centred on the Wimpole Hall estate and the Eversden Woods. This area has been awarded one of the UK’s highest levels of protection, a Special Area for Conservation. Feeding flights for the breeding mothers will be blocked, and bats may be killed during the construction and operation of the southern route. Many more less mobile mammals and birds will be greatly affected too. Mitigation for the barbastelles suggested by EWRCo includes methods which have been shown not to work elsewhere, such as nest boxes and bridges.

Elms are a rare tree in the British landscape, and recent research has found 35 species in Cambridgeshire, many growing in woods and hedges which will be destroyed – including one found nowhere else in the world, Ulmus cantabrigiensis, Cambridge elm. Rare black poplars are also to be found along the southern route.

The barbastelle bat (Barbastella barbastellus), western barbastelle hibernation. (47707356)
The barbastelle bat (Barbastella barbastellus), western barbastelle hibernation. (47707356)

As well as the Special Area for Conservation at Wimpole, the southern route will destroy or damage two Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), at least 11 County Wildlife Sites and three City Wildlife Sites, vitally important green spaces for the growing population of Cambridge.

The northern route is much less damaging to wildlife and landscapes, as it would cross the area already affected by the A14 upgrade, and a small part of agricultural fenland. It would not need to cross the River Cam. It should not affect any SSSIs, one or possibly two County Wildlife Sites, and no City Wildlife Sites.

However, both routes are likely to damage Coldhams Common and Coldhams Brook with its associated chalk stream network, a key recreational and wildlife site for the people of Cambridge. A large loop will need to be built here to allow freight trains to wait for a path through Cambridge; there has been little discussion about this major impact.

Visit our dedicated East West Rail page for more stories, opinions and background

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