Friday 9 May 2014

Sussex new town would damage UK Barn Owl recovery programme

Plans for a significant new town north east of Henfield threaten to concrete over a huge swathe of cherished Sussex countryside.  Below I reproduce an excellent article written by Jane Simmons, a local resident.  A wide range of wildlife will be affected by this proposal (not to mention the devastated landscape, over-crowding and congestion) but this current article looks at the issue from the perspective of Barn Owls, one of our more threatened bird species.

The peer responsible for the Government’s planning reforms wants to build a new town on countryside of ‘National Importance’ to Barn Owls - contrary to the guidelines set out in his own legislation.

Mayfield Market Towns wants to build 10,000 homes around Wineham and Twineham, on countryside straddling the River Adur Corridor. However, Colin Shawyer, former Director of the Hawk and Owl Trust and founder of the Barn Owl Conservation Network, says the area plays a vital part in a UK-wide Species Recovery Network.

 “These sites are important not only locally,” he says “but also regionally and nationally because this is all part of a UK wide project to restore the failing Barn Owl population. It is important to see this as a link in a chain.  Barn Owls are very sedentary birds so they are not going to fly very far to new sites. In fact they won’t leave their home ranges - they will just not breed within them. Then, as the habitat goes, eventually the population dies out.”

One of Mayfield Market Town’s Directors, Lord Matthew Taylor, was responsible for reviewing the Government’s National Policy Planning Framework two years ago. These guidelines advise planners to ‘identify and map components of local ecological networks,’ and ‘promote the preservation, restoration and re-creation of priority habitats’ to protect vulnerable species like the Barn Owl.

The Barn Owl is a Schedule 1 protected species and, due to its fragile population, has been closely monitored for many years. Figures compiled for the Sussex Ornithological Society show that more than 10% of West Sussex’s Barn Owls depend on this area. And according to Mr Shawyer, the loss of habitat here would also affect many more birds further along the river.

 “You can’t integrate Barn Owls into development schemes however much green space you put in. You can try and recreate it, but it won’t work because in order to have a good viable Barn Owl population you need habitat stretching over a twenty km stretch of river – you can’t fragment it with housing developments. Barn Owls will no longer survive in those areas. If an area of houses encroaches onto the River Adur corridor and within about one and a half km either side then you are not going to hold that population steady.”

But Lord Taylor’s fellow Mayfield Director, Peter Freeman has confirmed that Mayfield Market Towns is pressing on with its plans.

“We are now embarking on the formal planning application process, which will involve more detailed work on many aspects including ecology and flooding,” he says. “The work that our consultants have carried out to date leaves us with little doubt that there are no show stoppers.”

The owls in this area have been monitored for many years by Dr Barrie Watson who is a former President of the Sussex Ornithological Society. He holds a licence to ring them and checks the boxes each year to count and weigh the young to see how the population is progressing.

“The numbers of pairs breeding may vary from year to year according to the food supply,” he says. “We monitor the nest boxes at the large young stage, when it is very safe to disturb them.  We have a lot of boxes in barns as well as on trees. This is a brilliant habitat for Barn Owls. It is nicely away from the main road, it has plenty of low lying fields, and the eastern arm of the River Adur Valley has lots of rough banks and grassy margins for voles and mice, which provide food for the owls.

“The numbers of Barn Owls went down catastrophically from the 1930s – probably with the intensification of agriculture. The fields tended to be cultivated right up to the barbed wire fence instead of having a grassy headland at the end and the modern barns aren’t quite so friendly for owls - they don’t have the dark nooks and crannies for them to nest.

“We devised a species action plan for West Sussex, setting out things we would like to see to improve the population. We’ve put up a lot of nest boxes on trees and in agricultural buildings and farmers have been paid to leave grassy margins. I’m appalled to hear about this development plan; I have lived in Sussex all my life and was brought up in a rural area. I think we need nature and open spaces – I want some countryside left please.” 

Michael Nailard is Chairman of the Hurstpierpoint Flora and Fauna Group which has put up a number of Barn Owl boxes in the countryside nearby.

“Development would absolutely destroy all the work we’ve done,” he says. “Owls and bats need wide open spaces to survive. Without the countryside you won’t get these species surviving – they’ll be gone and our children will never know them.

“It makes me very cross. A pocket nature reserve or a wildlife corridor is no substitute for open countryside and I try to impress that on all the council officials and developers that I talk to. But they don’t seem interested – ecology is at the bottom of their list of priorities I’m afraid.”  

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