Biodiversity - Fauna Objection
Objection submitted by Susan McRae on behalf of the Horstedpond Farm Action Group (HFAG)
7 December 2022
In a request for a Screening Opinion from Wealden District Council in 2020 it is stated that “Horstedpond Farm is located within an agricultural landscape and has been for all its recorded history.” During that time the field patterns have changed little, and while some woodland may have been cleared for farmland, change has come only slowly. A variety of habitats have grown and matured over the centuries, providing a rich framework for a diversity of wildlife. The construction of 400 dwellings on the Farm, as proposed by Castlefort Homes, would compromise that diversity of wildlife unalterably. There would be no going back.
At the centre of Horstedpond Farm is a small complex of five residences, including Horstedpond House, a Grade II-listed building, and three converted agricultural buildings also of historical value. This enclave would be completely surrounded by the 400 dwellings that Castlefort Homes proposes to build at Horstedpond Farm, and its access lane would be intersected by a new road that would provide the only means of exit and entry for all the new dwellings.
Three desktop ecological surveys of Horstedpond Farm were carried out by three different companies on behalf of Castlefort Homes, all of which indicated the presence of protected birds, mammals, reptiles, bats and amphibians, including great crested newts. The three surveys are as follows:
- A Preliminary Ecological Appraisal (PEA), including an extended phase 1 habitat survey, carried out on 9 April 2019 by PJC Consultancy Ltd.
- An Arboricultural Survey, conducted on 22 August 2020 by GRS.
- An Interim Ecological Impact Assessment (EcIA), undertaken by Hone Ecology Ltd between April and September 2020, with a further walkover on 21 June 2022. A hedge assessment walkover was carried out on 14 July 2022.
In addition, our Horstedpond Farm Action Group (HFAG), which is objecting to the proposed Castlefort Homes development on a number of grounds, including those laid down in this Biodiversity – Fauna Objection, commissioned an ecological data search from Sussex Biodiversity Record Centre (SxBRC) on 4 November 2022. The data provided by SxBRC is for an area centred on our existing small Horstedpond Farm residence complex, with a 1 km radius. Results from the three desktop surveys above carried out under the developer’s instructions use a 2 km radius.
Horstedpond Farm is an important wildlife corridor which links the Millennium Green to the north with Horstedpond Wood, an area of Ancient Woodland, to the south. Any housing development on the Farm would result in the loss of not only arable agricultural land but also this valuable green corridor. The loss of the corridor would, in turn, cause a serious disruption to the habitats of a number of species of wildlife.
The Preliminary Ecological Appraisal (PEA) survey of Horstedpond Farm commissioned by the developer concluded that “suitable habitat(s) might be present for bats, badgers, dormice, amphibians (including great crested newts), breeding and nesting birds, water voles, otters and invertebrates”. Except for some species of invertebrate, all these types of fauna are protected under the following legislation (as appropriate):
- The Habitats Directive (Council Directive 92/43/EEC)
- The Birds Directive (Directive 2009/147/EC)
- Wildlife & Countryside Act, 1981 (as amended)
- The Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act (2006)
- Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations, 2010 (as amended)
- The Protection of Badgers Act 1992
The PEA survey found that the proposed development area had the potential to support a range of protected and notable invertebrate species because of its mosaic of suitable semi-natural habitats. These habitats include running and standing water, semi-improved grassland, hedgerows, scrub and ancient woodland. For example, the pearl-bordered fritillary, a species listed under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981 (as amended), was identified within the zone of influence affecting the proposed site, while the common dog-violet, a preferred foodplant of this type of butterfly during their larval stage, was also recorded within the proposed site.
An Interim EcIA survey carried out on 26 May 2020 on behalf of the developer recorded 86 species of invertebrate, including eight Lepidoptera, i.e. moths and butterflies. While most of the species are common and found across much of southern Britain, 21 species have only local distributions and one was specified as a BAP/Section 41 species.
The data provided for HFAG by SxBRC includes only protected and designated species, and shows 18 moths (NERC S41) and four Sussex Rare moths recorded during the summer months of 2020-22.
The PEA survey also featured a preliminary bat roost assessment. It identified multiple trees within the proposed site and multiple buildings within the existing Horstedpond Farm complex as having potential to support roosting bats. It also identified a variety of semi-natural Horstedpond Farm habitats as having high suitability to support commuting and foraging bats.
During the walked bat activity transect surveys carried out for the Interim EcIA, at least six species of bats were recorded commuting and foraging. Emergences from the roof area of Horstedpond House have been observed at (unrecorded) times.
Paragraph 4.4.2 of the PEA survey states that “All bats are European Protected Species (EPS); the majority of trees on the proposed site will be directly or indirectly impacted as a result of the proposed development, which could result in the damage or destruction of a potential bat roost site.”
Paragraph 4.4.8 of the PEA survey states that “The proposed development includes a large number of houses and associated access roads, encircling the Horstedpond Farm complex. Therefore, the proposed development could result in obstructing access to a roosting site should it be within any of the buildings within that complex.”
Paragraph 4.4.12 of the PEA survey states that “The large (Horstedpond Farm) complex network of hedgerows, treelines, woodlands, ponds and the Ridgewood Stream together form a habitat of high suitability for foraging and commuting bats. Its development could result in loss or degradation of such habitat or sever important commuting routes and obstruct access between potential bat roosts and important foraging habitats.”
At present, the proposed site is a dark area at night, with only a few dwellings. The increased amount of light from 400 households and street lighting would certainly have a negative effect on not only bats, but also all other nocturnal wildlife.
All birds, their eggs and nests are protected under the UK’s Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). Many species found at Horstedpond Farm are also listed as Species of Principal Importance under the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act ‘s Section 41(NERC, S41) 2006.
Paragraph 4.4.44 of the PEA survey states that “The proposed development site supports a wide range of habitats providing good nesting and foraging opportunities for a wide range of bird species. Works associated with development of the site, for example habitat clearance, could result in direct adverse impacts on birdlife, including protected and notable species.”
The Interim EcIA surveys undertaken within the optimal period of April – June 2020 detected 45 bird species on the proposed site, of which 38 species were confirmed as likely to be breeding there. Twelve species of ‘red’ or ‘amber’ Birds of Conservation Concern (BoCC) were identified and six ‘red’ species – skylark, song thrush, mistle thrush, starling, house sparrow and yellowhammer – were confirmed as breeding on the Farm.
However, despite these many confirmations, the true biodiversity of the area is difficult to determine because the land is private, with no public footpaths crossing it. As a result, with no one to report sightings, the Farm’s bird biodiversity and population is likely to be considerably under-estimated. The records of a local ornithologist with long-term knowledge of the birdlife both at Horstedpond Farm and High Cross Farm reports sightings of 115 species of birds over the last 10 years. The SxBRC data indicates that 129 different species of birds have been sighted within a 1 km radius of the five existing Horstedpond Farm residences over the past two decades.
As residents at Horstedpond Farm, we have noticed a marked increase in the mixed flocks of over-wintering small finches since the Farm’s arable fields (Grade 3 agricultural land) were turned over to the production of bird-seed mix crops. Obviously, this observation is not reflected in the Interim EcIA, nor does the survey mention any of the other species which might use the farm outside the breeding season.
Many of the grassland field and arable field margins and mature trees located along the hedgerows and field boundaries were considered to offer potential foraging and nesting opportunities to barn owls. These creatures are given the highest level of legal protection possible under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. They are given ‘amber’ status under the Birds of Conservation Concern and are categorised as a species of European Conservation Concern.
The proposed construction works would disturb both foraging and resting areas for birds and, if the development became operational, it would introduce new risks for birds, including domestic predators, vehicles and human disturbance.
Dormice: SxBRC’s latest record for dormice sightings at Horstedpond Farm is September 2021. As residents at the Farm, we also have seen evidence of their presence during the last couple of years. However, the Interim EcIA survey commissioned by the developer found no signs of dormouse.
Dormice are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) and Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 (as amended). They are also listed as Species of Principal Interest (SPI) under Section 41 of NERC 2006. Paragraph 11.3 of the Interim EcIA survey states that “It was noted that any improvement of habitat post-development might be cancelled out by new threats such as domestic predators, vehicles, etc.”
Hedgehogs: The Interim EcIA survey confirmed the presence of hedgehogs in the northwest area of the Farm, and the passage of hedgehogs has been assumed throughout the proposed development site. Hedgehogs are a Species of Principal Importance under NERC S41, 2006. Paragraph 4.4.67 of the PEA survey states that “The presence of this species on site would be a material consideration in the planning process.”
Deer: Although not considered during the Interim EcIA survey, sightings of herds of up to 50 fallow deer are not uncommon in the Farm’s eastern fields.
GREAT CRESTED NEWTS
Great crested newts are fully protected under Schedule 5 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) and the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017.
In a consultee response to the proposed development the NatureSpace Newt Officer confirmed that Horstedpond Farm is a ‘red’ impact zone for great crested newts (GCNs). This indicates that the area is highly suitable habitat and that there is a high likelihood of GCN presence.
The PEA survey found that a large number of GCNs and common toads were recorded immediately adjacent to the Farm. The finding indicated the likely presence of these species both within the wider landscape and in aquatic and terrestrial habitats across the Farm.
Although no GCNs were observed when the Interim EcIA was carried out, following the 21 June 2022 walkover survey to determine any changes in habitats on the Farm or its management since the surveys undertaken in 2020, water samples from all three ponds were sent to SureScreen Scientific laboratory for eDNA testing. The results were negative for the presence of GCN in ponds P1 and P3, but positive for pond P2, which indicated current or recent presence.
In his consultee response the Newt Officer advised that, should this application succeed, he wished to see strict adherence to stringent Compliance Conditions at the reserved matters stage. The Officer also added a warning, to the effect that if the applicant wishes to carry out licensable works prior to that point, they will need to gain a licence at outline stage.
As residents of Horstedpond Farm, we can confirm that great crested newts are definitely present in at least two small, private ponds within the farm complex.
Paragraph 4.4.31 of the PEA survey states that “The development might have adverse indirect impacts on potential breeding ponds, e.g. as a result of deterioration in the aquatic environment from increased pollution run-off from construction-related activities.”
The PEA survey confirmed the widespread presence of native reptile species – more specifically the common lizard, adder, grass snake and slow worm – at the Farm. All are protected species. Paragraph 8.2 of the Interim EcIA survey states that “New habitat will be available for reptiles after (the proposed) construction but there will be new risks too, e.g. new domestic predators and the presence of vehicles.”
RIDGEWOOD STREAM LIFE
The Ridgewood Stream, a tributary of the River Uck, flows from east to west across the northern edge of the proposed Horstedpond Farm development site. Although the Interim EcIA indicated no such sightings, several species of fish have been seen by a local resident upstream of the proposed development site. The presence of the European eel (a protected species) and swan mussels have also been detected in Ridgewood Stream. In addition, SxBRC data features several records of bullhead and brown/sea trout sightings within the proposed site during the last six or seven years.
The surveys also indicate that clay contamination of the Ridgewood Stream and, subsequently, the River Uck could occur as a result of highway works and the construction of large clay bunds. As it is important that the water remains aerated, clay contamination and silt deposits would be of grave detriment to the salmonid species of the upper River Ouse, into which these water courses eventually flow.
Nature Trust says it best, in its booklet entitled Homes for people and wildlife: “Built in the right way, in the right place, new housing developments can make a positive contribution to nature and to the health and wellbeing of people who live there … New housing should be located in areas that are already well served by infrastructure and should avoid harm to the existing environmental assets of an area.”
The proposed Horstedpond Farm development fails to justify its construction on any grounds, not least because of the debilitating effect the project would have on the area’s rich diversity of species of fauna, built up over centuries. The presence of protected birds, mammals, reptiles, bats and amphibians, including great crested newts, in profusion at Horstedpond Farm was confirmed by three consultancy surveys commissioned by Castlefort Homes as well as by an ecological data search carried out on behalf of our HFAG team.