20 Nov 2007 : Column 13P

20 Nov 2007 : Column 13P


Tuesday 20 November 2007

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Sefton Coastal Woods

The Petition of the Sefton Coast Watch Committee,

Declares the Petitioners’ serious concerns over the past ten years with the plans of the organisation presently known as Natural England to clear fell in total 75 hectares, i.e. almost one quarter of the 302 hectares of woodland which make up the Sefton Coastal Woods. These woods are a precious red squirrel refuge and a delight to the 700,000 visitors annually, mainly from Merseyside. They also help to neutralise raised carbon emissions from global warming. This represents 5,000 local residents within the borough of Sefton and supports the unanimous vote of Sefton councillors on 4th March 2004.

The Petitioners therefore request that the House of Commons urges the Government to initiate a Judicial Review or some other unbiased Parliamentary legal investigation; so that the correct interpretation of the National and European Conservation legislation may be clearly determined. We request that this should happen before Natural England is granted any further licence to clear fell and destroy more of an already existing red squirrel woodland habitat.

And the Petitioners remain, etc. —[Presented by Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas , Official Report, 23 October 2007; Vol. 465, c. 257.] [P000063]

Observation from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs:

The Government recognises that it is a statutory function of Natural England to manage land as National Nature Reserves (NNRs) under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 and the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949.

Ainsdale Sand Dunes NNR is one of Natural England's flagship reserves, with over 100,000 people a year benefiting from the recreational, landscape and wildlife attractions which the reserve offers. It is wholly in the freehold ownership of Natural England and as such Natural England has a duty to manage the land for nature conservation purposes. The reserve is one of the finest sand dune systems in England, supporting rare and endangered species such as natterjack toads, sand lizards and tiger beetles and over 450 plant species, many of which are locally and regionally rare. Part of the reserve which is formed of extensive planted pinewood also supports an important colony of red squirrels.

The variety of open dune habitats are of national and European importance and the reserve is included within the Sefton Coast Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Area of Conservation (SAC). However, a large area of the open dune habitats has been lost to development and afforestation. Afforestation has resulted in dune plants and animals unable to survive under the dense shade and needle litter of the pines. The presence of plantations on a
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retreating coast means that the dune habitats are being squeezed and effectively cut in two. In addition, the pine trees nearest the sea prevent a natural response of the dune fringe to coastline changes. The trees prevent sand from blowing back onto the dunes from the beach so the dunes cannot recover from storm erosion.

To combat this, further dune restoration is required involving some relatively small loss of pine plantation at Ainsdale Sand Dunes NNR, which is being planned in consultation with stakeholders and the local community. Dune restoration is entirely consistent with member states' responsibilities under the Habitats Directive (Directive92/43/EEC) which covers the management of SACs and is implemented in the UK through the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 (as amended). Regulation 3(2) requires Natural England to exercise its functions to secure compliance with the requirements of the Habitats Directive. Article 6(2) of the Habitats Directive requires member states to take appropriate steps to avoid the deterioration of natural habitats.

Natural England has a statutory duty under section 28G of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 to exercise its functions, including the management of its NNRs, to further the conservation and enhancement of SSSIs' special conservation interests. The Government is also committed to its Public Service Agreement target to bring 95% of SSSIs by area into favourable condition by 2010. Part of Sefton Coast SSSI is currently in unfavourable condition and the proposed dune restoration will be necessary if this SSSI is to return to favourable condition.

Ainsdale Sand Dunes NNR also forms part of a designated Red Squirrel refuge area, which is a voluntary designation under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan agreed by the Sefton Coast Partnership and is 420 hectares in area. The refuge hosts a population of between 500-800 red squirrels. However, red squirrel populations are not confined to the refuge area but cover an area of 50 square kilometres from Crosby to Southport and neighbouring areas of West Lancashire giving an overall population of between 1000-1500, which is thriving.

To date, Natural England has undertaken dune restoration on the NNR over an area of 30.5 hectares affecting 13.5 hectares of pine plantation. It is currently working with partners on how to restore the dune landscape in an adjacent area of 44.5 hectares which includes a mixture of pine woodland, scrub and dunes. It is anticipated that habitat that could support up to 22 red squirrels will be lost as a result of the proposed felling. Natural England would be required to make an application for a felling licence to the Forestry Commission.

Natural England manages the majority of the NNR pine woodlands (approximately 145 hectares) as part of the Sefton Coast Woodlands 'Forest Plan'. This is a 20 year plan to diversify the woodland age structure, encourage greater public awareness and understanding and to manage the mosaic of habitats within the woodland boundary. This Plan will ensure the continuity of woodland habitat along the coast to the benefit of the red squirrel population. Since the start of the Woodland plan in 2003, Natural England has planted 4444 Scots pine trees and encouraged 2 hectares of natural pine regeneration.

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