Besides its historical significance, the site of Eastham bridge is also important ecologically. The River Teme is an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest), protected by law to conserve the wildlife or geology. In future posts we’ll talk more about this designation and its implications.
Planning for the new bridge involved work to ensure minimal impact on the natural environment. A number of bodies were involved including Natural England, the Environment Agency and Worcestershire County Council’s Ecology Team.
The County Council’s ecologists had to predict the likely impact of construction works, ensure work was legally compliant and look at ways to minimise risk to the environment from the construction.
Understanding the presence or absence of our protected species is critical in understanding how the reconstruction project had to be designed in order to comply with the law and avoid needlessly damaging our rare and protected native wildlife.
A starting point was the Worcestershire Habitat Inventory (WHI), which brings together known information about the habitats and wildlife across the county, geo-referenced on a map. It is available for anyone to see at http://www.worcestershire.gov.uk/info/20302/worcestershire_habitat_inventory The WHI clearly reveals that the Teme SSSI forms the backbone of a particularly biodiverse corridor along the western flank of the County, a wildlife corridor comprising a network of important native habitats which are likely to support scarce and legally protected native wildlife.
One important consideration was how some specifically protected species may be affected. A mapping tool and previous evidence is one thing, but there’s no substitute for getting out on the ground and having a look.
It was thought that the remaining bridge structure and nearby trees could be used by bats for roosts. Worcestershire supports at least 14 different species of bats, including a number of nationally and internationally scarce and vulnerable species who have evolved as specialists in foraging for their insect prey near high-quality watercourses and in ancient woodlands which are recorded in the local landscape. Specialists inspected the remains of the bridge and used infrared cameras to see if there were signs of current use. They then carefully checked the surrounded trees paying particular attention to features such as peeling bark, splits, mats of ivy and cavities where bats tend to roost. No bats were in residence. To prevent bats roosting after the ecologists had gone, and being affected when work began on the bridge, potential holes were sealed up and netting put on the remains of the bridge under the direction of a licensed ecologist.
An area 100m either side of the bridge was searched for evidence of otters, a species which appears to be making a welcome comeback across Worcestershire. A trained specialist inspected the river banks by canoe to look to see if they could spot any traces. None were found. A possible water vole burrow was observed, but it looked old and disused. Once a common sight along British waterways, water voles have undergone one of the most serious declines of any wild mammal in Britain during the 20th century. The intensification of agriculture in the 1940s and 1950s caused the loss and degradation of habitat, but the most rapid period of decline was during the 1980s and 1990s as
A possible water vole burrow was observed, but it looked old and disused. Once a common sight along British waterways, water voles have undergone one of the most serious declines of any wild mammal in Britain during the 20th century. The intensification of agriculture in the 1940s and 1950s caused the loss and degradation of habitat, but the most rapid period of decline was during the 1980s and 1990s as American mink spread. Between 1989 and 1998, the population fell by almost 90%. Although they were formerly known to occur in the Eastham area, there are now only a handful of populations within the county.
Although a couple of kingfishers were spotted perching during one of the visits (and are seen on a regular basis by the workers down at the bridge), no signs were found of suitable nesting sites near to the bridge. Kingfishers are a fairly rare and easily disturbed bird which are afforded the highest degree of legal protection under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981).
The hazel dormouse has suffered a decline in numbers of around a third since the year 2000. Distribution of dormice across England appears to be contracting. Monitoring of individual populations appears to indicate dramatic declines in sightings: this is a species particularly vulnerable to local extinction. The hazel dormouse is fully protected under the Wildlife and Countryside act against disturbance, injury or killing, so licensed ecologists inspected nearby hedges to see if they were suitable for dormice to nest, and to look for other signs of dormouse activity. The ecologists concluded that there was a low likelihood of the works affecting any dormice.
The inspection showed that these species do not seem to be present in the immediate vicinity. Measures will be put in place to make sure the new bridge and surrounding area are as wildlife-friendly as possible, such as removal of the invasive and noxious pest species Himalayan balsam from the working area to prevent spread offsite.
The County Council understands the need to ensure the project conforms to the law, but the legislation is also there to protect something which has great intrinsic value: the wildlife and wild-landscapes which give Worcestershire’s communities our sense of place and belonging. Communities have great pride in our shared natural environment. While they can be vulnerable, Worcestershire’s wild habitats also perform key services, such as moving flood water, pollinating our crops, and cleaning our air; we need to ensure the project is delivered while protecting and enhancing Worcestershire’s biodiversity wherever this is possible.