Fall from grace - woodland on Church of England land pulled down
A church order to return woodland back to arable has upset locals
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By Sarah Ward
A woodland plot on the edge of a Northamptonshire village has been felled leading to claims of ‘environmental vandalism’ against the church owners.
Heavy machinery moved onto the patch of woodland off Wire Lane in East Carlton on Friday and rapidly mowed down scores of trees over the course of the weekend.
The land now stands barren, and a local ecologist who has been down to the site has labelled the situation ‘pretty horrific’, saying it is certain living creatures will have been killed in the felling, which has taken place during nesting season - when trees which are home to nesting birds are legally protected.
Calls are now being made for landowners, the diocese of Peterborough, which covers most of Northants, Rutland and Peterborough, to replant the trees and turn the area of land into a managed woodland.
Lucy Haynes and Bob Trevelyan, live close to the former woodland site and first noticed activity in the area on Friday. But despite speaking with the contractor mowing down the trees, taking to social media to share videos of what was happening and contacting their local MP Tom Pursglove, they were unable to stop the machinery from carrying out its destruction of the habitat. By Sunday evening an area of around three hectares had been cleared. Some of the trees had grown there for at least two decades.
(Watch Bob’s footage of the tree clearance here)
The couple are furious about what has happened, especially in the current climate where the benefits of trees to the future of the planet are well known.
“It feels like something has been done to the local community by an organisation which is not part of the community, “ said Bob.
“We are supposed to be taking carbon out of the atmosphere - what is the reason for this?
“What we want to know is why they have done it and what is the intention for the land?
“What I would like the diocese of Peterborough to say is - ‘we’ve made a mistake and we will replant them.’
“I want them to accept that they have acted in a high handed manner. Surely it is irresponsible to mow down a load of trees.”
Lucy said in her opinion the act was ‘environmental vandalism’.
“Watching the destruction was really shocking and upsetting. It was also disappointing the village was not consulted/informed.
“I would really like to understand what, in 2022, with a backdrop of climate change the diocese/Carter Jonas hope to achieve by this work.”
(Carter Jonas are the church’s land agents).
Ecology and the law
After learning of what was happening through social media, retired ecologist Keith Walkling, who lives nearby in Wilbarston, went down to the site twice over the weekend to carry out a survey.
“Basically they have flattened the whole thing,” he said. “That is a thumping great piece of kit that flattens everything and mulches it into the ground. What has happened is a massive destruction of the habitat.
“We had a good search yesterday (Sunday) but we couldn’t find an active nest. The nests that we saw were magpie, wood pigeon and one that would have been a buzzard or red kite. I have no doubt somewhere on the site there would have been an active nest. I did speak to the police about this - I phoned them to alert them. But the police will only act if there is evidence the law has been broken, ie, if we could give them a nest of dead chicks.”
Keith said his explorations had found a dead mouse on the site, but kites and buzzards had probably cleared up the site, removing any further evidence. When NN Journal went down to the site there were a number of young feathers resting on the earth.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 makes it “an offence to intentionally kill, injure or disturb a protected species or intentionally or recklessly damage any place a protected species uses for shelter or protection, including during the breeding or nesting seasons.”
Local authorities can also impose tree preservation orders on certain trees or woodlands to prevent felling, however it is understood that none of the trees had a preservation order on them.
A spokesperson for Northamptonshire Police said:
“We received a call about people cutting down trees in the East Carlton Park area on 09/04 just before 1.30pm.
“We advised the caller that we would be making the Council’s Environmental Health Team aware as this is their jurisdiction.”
The unitary councillor who represents the area Kevin watt said the matter was being taken very seriously and diocese would be contacted to make sure the rules were followed. NN Journal also understands that MP Tom Pursglove has written to North Northamptonshire Council and the diocese asking that local concerns are looked into.
North Northamptonshire Council has been contacted for comment.
The land has been leased by the Burgess family, who live in a large house nearby, from the diocese of Peterborough for decades over which time it had turned into woodland and scrub. After the original tenant John Burgess, former chairman of the Woodland Pytchley Hunt, died five years ago the tenancy passed over to his daughter Poppy. Two years ago the diocese’s land agent Carter Jonas said the land would need to return to arable as per the terms of the original lease. It is understood that the tenants were told that if they did not do it then the land would be cleared and the cost would be billed to them.
The issue has been ongoing since that time. The land was supposed to be cleared last October before nesting season began, but paperwork/communication delays meant the work began this week. The tenants say an ecology survey was carried out and land agents Carter Jonas were aware the work was to begin this week. Poppy Burgess did not want to provide a comment beyond saying she had just done what she had been told to do by the church.
All work on the site has now been stopped. The diocese has a committee which decides on what happens with its land and assets. It may be that this committee now makes the decision on what happens next.
NN Journal contacted the diocese which said:
“The field at East Carlton was originally let as an arable field.
“Permission was given to put the field into long term meadowland under a Defra scheme.
“We have been working with the tenant to advise them of their farm obligations. The tenant has worked with the diocese to commission an ecology report from Till Hill.
“The site was previously cleared in 2018. The ecology report describes the area being cleared as grazing land which has started to develop regenerating scrub since 2018. The area that has been cleared is young habitat and the works have been done in accordance with the report.”
They said the tenant requested consent in 1994 to enter the land into the Habitat Scheme as meadowland. This followed on from an earlier set aside scheme.
However ecologist Keith Walkling has disputed this claim using evidence from google earth images which show that back in 2005 there was extensive tree cover in the area and recent images show very little meadow.
“This is not a young habitat,” he said. “Some of the trees will be self sets from the late 1990s.”
Another local controversy
The Church of England and its 42 dioceses own around 20,000 acres of land across the country. Glebe land is ecclesiastical land that may be used to support a parish priest.
The vicar of St Mary Magdalene Church in East Carlton, Amanda Oliver, was not aware of the church’s orders to return the land back to arable and cut down the trees.
The Peterborough diocese is embroiled in another controversial matter in the east of the county near Thrapston. In 2020 it sold a ten year option to property developer IM Properties on 114 acres of arable land. A planning application for a business park on the site has not yet been submitted but locals have formed a campaign against the development. (Read the recent story from NN Journal).
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