Birds’ nesting sites cut down, but police confront protesters instead

On your own: no police protection in Hythe for the Cetti’s warbler: “Cetti’s Warbler” by naturalengland

A crime against birds: nesting sites in Hythe cut down, despite protests, with police support and ignoring the regulations which should apply in nesting season.

Last week in Hythe, contractors at a site alongside the Royal Military Canal (RMC) started to cut down trees at a new development approved by the District Council. The action is opposed by many local residents who gathered in protest. Although protestors were masked and distanced, police tried to move them on under Covid rules, and refused to accept their report of the crime against nesting birds.

Birds die when their nesting habitat is destroyed. That is why there are regulations against clearing vegetation during the nesting season.

I am privileged to live a stone’s throw from the Royal Military Canal at its eastern end. This 28-mile watercourse was built by hand as a defence against the threat of invasion by Napoleon. The invasion never came; now the tree-lined towpath and tranquil surroundings of Seabrook provide residents, visitors and wildlife with a wonderful haven from modern life.

It boasts a Green Flag award, something of which the people who live here are naturally proud. They value the habitat that the trees and the scrub of nearby Prince’s Parade provide. The opportunity to watch the majestic pair of mute swans who choose to nest here yearly is a real joy, especially when the cygnets are born. There is a wealth of other bird life too, from plain blackbirds, with their exquisite song, to house sparrows who never seem to rest, criss-crossing the paths.

The Schedule One Cetti’s Warbler is also a resident here; it can be heard calling if you listen carefully. On the water, moorhens and cormorants can regularly be seen and – if you are very lucky – a vibrant flash of blue might alert you to the presence of the kingfisher near his burrow on the canal’s north bank.

It is the north bank that recently became the site of not only human disturbance, but also of harm to the local environment and dispute between the police, Folkestone & Hythe District Council and the general public.

On Monday 8 March, a month that many will know as the (official) start of the bird breeding season which runs from March to August, council employees arrived en masse to cut down trees, both dead and living, to create a suitable habitat for reptiles. This ‘reptile receptor area’ is connected with the impending development of Prince’s Parade, an unwelcome urbanisation on the south bank between the canal and the sea.

Should it be built, the development will require the relocation of the wildlife which inhabits it, including badgers, slow worms, common toads and grass snakes. Prince’s Parade has been left to nature after the council closed it to the public following the dredging of the canal some years ago, the spoil of which was dumped on the area and deemed a health risk.

The canal towpath was as busy as it has been since Covid as people came to enjoy the area – a natural tonic for a testing time. A few days before, fencing had been dumped by the bridges between which the clearance work was to take place. A small section had already been cleared at the end of February, the stumps remaining as a graveyard-like reminder of the trees which had once been home to insects and birds.

The council had not provided any notices at the site as to what was happening nor why the work was necessary. The busy path was to be closed for three days with no public access allowed and with no prior warning in the area itself. And so when the council employees turned up, those present wanted to know what was happening. We were all very concerned that the 50 or so trees still standing between the bridges would suffer the same fate as the others.

But this time the birds were definitely nesting. I had been out in the cold of the early morning, walking among the trees as the crescendo rose that accompanies the dawn in spring. I stood still for many minutes, watching a pair of blackbirds diving in and out of a tree, hidden away behind evergreen ivy in the safety of its camouflage (although the shaking leaves did give them away a little!). Sadly no amount of camouflage would save them from what was to come.

More vans arrived with various equipment, chainsaws accompanied a large industrial shredder. When I arrived, a fence had been almost completed to block the path. We stood within the fence; we knew they could not destroy what was there while there was a danger to us from their operations – unlike the birds who had no protection, even from the law, as it would turn out.

After confirming that the intention was to cut down the majority of the trees and with no confirmation that a nesting bird survey had been undertaken by a qualified person, many felt there was a certainty of harm to wildlife and in particular to birds building their nests. The standing advice to local planning authorities from Natural England lists a number of measures that should be applied when this type of work is necessary including “doing works at a different time of year. No works should be undertaken in the breeding season (March to August).”

The work did not need to be done at this time of year, as it could easily have been completed prior to or following the close season. Nor was it planned in accordance with the guidance which states that measures to prevent nesting birds building their nests in the selected trees should be carried out in advance. I decided I would stay in what was soon to resemble a compound to prevent this ill-advised work from beginning.

At this point the police arrived – just a couple of Community Officers (PCSOs) initially. They advised us that a report of an illegal gathering under Covid restrictions had been made and that we should leave the area. I explained we had not broken any restrictions, we were socially distanced, many wearing masks, and outside. We were not an organised group; we were concerned people who wanted some confirmation that no harm would come to the wild birds who were protected under the law.

The PCSOs declined to take up my report of an imminent contravention of the law under the Countryside & Wildlife Act 1981, focusing instead on our supposed breach of Covid regulations. More officers arrived to try to disperse the 50 or so people who were in the ‘sterile area’, a large space with no risk to the ability to remain socially distanced.

The officer now in charge agreed: we were adhering to the regulations. Instead, he attempted to guide (entrap?) me into saying I was protesting, as that, too, is currently an offence. I did not fall into his trap, explaining that we were simply there because we knew that significant harm was planned to the trees and wildlife as a result of the works and that we were not convinced due diligence had been carried out specifically to protect birds who were in the process of building their nests.

I walked with the senior officer to show him the devastation of the previous week and the tree graveyard. He saw my point of view and his former aggression dissipated. He suggested that perhaps the council should stop work that day so further investigation could be undertaken. A sensible approach. We refused to leave unless the work for the day was scrapped. By this time, a number of Green Party councillors had arrived, all living in the local area and becoming aware of the “disturbance”. They made representations in our favour but were eventually separated from us in the ‘sterile area’.

More officers arrived. They meant business; no more Mr Nice Guy. We were given an ultimatum: we leave or face fines. We stood our ground; at an impasse. No crimes had been committed. We stared at each other, batting the rights and wrongs backwards and forwards, but when an officer has instructions from a higher power nothing you say will make a difference. I even asked for his help to investigate the impending crime, but no help was forthcoming.

This group of local people understood that what was occurring was wrong, but it takes a certain mindset to oppose the police. We remained peaceful and hoped at least that a search for nesting birds would be conducted before the work started, especially with so many people saying this should occur. We were escorted from the ‘sterile area’ to the sound of chainsaws and employees who were behind schedule and no doubt with pressure upon them to make up for lost time.

The feeling was one of deep sadness, regret and anger as we resigned ourselves to failure. This is just the beginning; total destruction of Prince’s Parade will be soon to follow if the Council Leader, Conservative David Monk, and his allies get their way.

The Save Prince’s Parade campaign exists to save this amazing open space, the setting of the magnificent Royal Military Canal which is a designated Ancient Scheduled Monument. Where once the canal protected the British Isles from French invasion, it now requires protection itself along with all the wildlife that surrounds it. Please visit the website and join the campaign to find out what you can do to help.

Editor: We have embedded the link above, but here is the detail of the law that is being flouted:

Protection of wild birds, their nests and eggs: Subject to the provisions of this Part, if any person intentionally –
(a)kills, injures or takes any wild bird;
[F2(aa) takes, damages or destroys the nest of a wild bird included in Schedule ZA1;]
(b)takes, damages or destroys the nest of any wild bird while that nest is in use or being built; or
(c)takes or destroys an egg of any wild bird,
or if any person has in his possession or control any wild bird recently killed or taken which is not shown to have been killed or taken otherwise than in contravention of this Act or any order made thereunder, he shall be guilty of an offence against this Act and, if that offence is committed in respect of a bird included in the First Schedule to this Act or in respect of the nest or egg of such a bird, shall be liable to a special penalty.

Wild birds surveys and mitigation for development projects