HS2 has been ordered to stop tree-felling at ancient woodland in the Chilterns after campaigners launched a landmark legal case against Natural England.

Mark Keir brought the legal action on behalf of the Jones’ Hill Wood Earth Protectors after HS2 was allowed to fell 0.7 hectares of land at Jones Hill Wood, near Wendover, as part of its construction works.

Natural England issued a licence to allow HS2 to carry out the tree-felling at the wood, which is home to the rare barbastelle bat, as well as a number of other protected species, such as noctule, brown long-eared, Natterers, common and soprano pipistrelle bat roosts, and ancient ecosystems.

On Friday, Mrs Justice Lang ordered the high-speed railway company to halt works “or other activities” at Jones Hill Wood while the case is considered, saying: “The Interested Parties are forthwith restrained from carrying out works or other activities at Jones’ Hill Wood, Buckinghamshire, in the Licensed Area, as defined in License WML-OR58, issued by Natural England on 30 March 2021, until the determination of this claim or further order.”

The order adds: “In granting interim relief, I expressly weighed in the balance the inconvenience and irrecoverable expense caused by delay to the works.

“However, in my judgment, the balance of convenience lies in favour of maintaining the status quo, bearing in mind the legal obligation to protect rare species and the fact that harm to rare species may well be irreversible.”

READ MORE: Felled tree 'would not survive' vandal's chemical attack

In a blog post on the licensing, Natural England wrote: “Our assessment has concluded that the felling of 0.7 hectares of woodland at Jones Hill Wood will not be detrimental to the favourable conservation of the overall bat populations in this area.

“Our decision takes into account a number of elements including the areas over which bats forage and the wider available foraging resource, the proposed methodology for minimising harm to roosting bats, and the compensation measures that must be put in place, which include creating new roosting features, bat boxes and the planting of 3.2 hectares of woodland habitat and fruit trees on an adjacent site.”

It adds: “We’ll continue to work both with HS2 and other concerned stakeholders during the works, and our staff will undertake a site visit during felling to ensure that licence conditions are being met.”

Campaigners claim Jones Hill Wood also inspired Great Missenden author Roald Dahl to write Fantastic Mr Fox, but HS2 says there is “no evidence of any connection between Jones Hill Woods and Roald Dahl”, and that the Roald Dahl Museum in Great Missenden points to Angling Spring Woods, “which is much closer to his former home”, as the inspiration for the book.

Lisa Foster, a partner at Richard Buxton Solicitors, which has brought the case on behalf of the Jones’ Hill Wood Earth Protectors, said: “We are pleased and relieved that Mrs Justice Lang has considered Mr Keir’s urgent claim to quash the bat licence issued to HS2 agents by Natural England for felling in Jones’ Hill Wood.

“The judge has granted an order suspending works under the licence. The important principle raised in the case is that high ecological protections matter when destroying ecologically important habitat, even in the context of nationally significant infrastructure.

“This case will give the court the opportunity to determine if Natural England failed in its regulatory duty.”

The case will now be “rolled-up”, or expedited, with another hearing expected to take place on a date in the week commencing May 24, or “as soon as possible” from June 8.

A spokesman for the Jones’ Hill Wood Earth Protectors said: “The cost of Natural England’s lack of cooperation broke hearts in the Chilterns AONB, as HS2 staff celebrated the felling of trees.

“The Fantastic Mr Fox tree now lies as timber, and the woodland has been irreversibly damaged.”

HS2 says it will appeal the decision to pause the works.

A spokesperson said: “All HS2 ecological work is designed to protect wildlife and is carried out in accordance with legal requirements.

“At Jones Hill Wood, HS2’s contractor applied for, and received the necessary licence from Natural England in order to undertake works.

“Our ecologists can see no logical reason why works should now be halted. HS2 will help cut the number of cars and lorries on our roads, cut demand for domestic flights, and help the country’s fight against climate change.”

This story originally appeared in the Bucks Free Press.

Forestry Journal remains dedicated to bringing you all the latest news and views from across our industry, plus up-to-date information on the impacts of COVID-19.

Please support us by subscribing to our print edition, delivered direct to your door, from as little at £75 for 1 year – or consider a digital subscription from just £1 for 3 months.

To arrange, follow this link: https://www.forestryjournal.co.uk/subscribe/

Thanks – and stay safe.