Why you can't simply move wildlife elsewhere

The failure to undertake a Strategic Environmental Assessment has put precious places and wildlife at risk. Photo of Bernwood Meadows by Rhea Draguisky.

The effects of house building and infrastructure development on wildlife, or how you can’t simply move wildlife elsewhere, and create new habitat instantly.

Imagine this: one day you wake up in a strange location with none of the familiar home comforts you went to sleep with. Your house has been bulldozed and you’ve been dropped miles away from your former home. Your family is nowhere to be seen. The roads you travel down to work and get food are out of sight. The air smells different and all that you have known before is gone. 

Could life carry on as normal? Could you start afresh and thrive? Or would the stress of being cut off from all that you have known and needed to survive affect your health and drive you down?

This is the challenge that development can all too often place on our precious wildlife. And in many cases it’s our rarest wildlife and habitats that are affected. 

Finemere Wood

Finemere Wood by Tim Read

Why you can’t just move wildlife when it gets in the way

It is a familiar refrain of developers that concreting over habitats will have no detrimental impacts on the wildlife that live there as they will simply be picked up and moved (or ‘translocated’) to new, better habitats. 

The theory goes that a newly planted blackthorn hedge in Bicester is just as good as an established blackthorn hedge in Banbury for some translocated butterfly eggs. Or a newly planted woodland can take the place of an ancient woodland, perhaps hundreds of years old, for the countless woodland species that lived there.

Unfortunately, the story is not so simple. 

Ancient woodland develops over many centuries, slowly changing to provide homes for a wide variety of species from butterflies and birds to flowers and fungi. For example, wood anemones, pretty woodland plants that bloom in spring, spread just six feet in a hundred years.

Once ancient woodland is gone, it’s gone forever. However well-planned and considered, a newly-planted area of saplings will take many decades, if not centuries, to grow into the habitat it is meant to replace. In that time the woodland wildlife that lived there will be long-gone.

Great crested newt

Great crested newt

When the human need to build conflicts with a species’ need to have a home of its own, it is the wildlife that invariably loses out. Animals like adders, bats and great crested newts, are evicted to make way for humans. 

Moving wildlife is a common way of getting around the environmental impact of building projects - but there is a serious lack of authoritative research on the success of these translocation projects, and the survival rates both of the species moved, and of the wildlife left behind in the areas surrounding the new development. 

It is all too easy to move a group of adders, for example, from one site to another. But without long-term monitoring to see if they survive and thrive, we rely on blind faith rather than scientific proof that the adders will adapt to the habitat they have been abruptly relocated to.

Moreover, the existing population may already be at maximum capacity for the area, leaving no space for the incomers. The risk of the moved adders bringing disease to the new site is also very high. In this case the new adders may infect the existing population resulting in the entire population, old and new, dying. 

Black hairstreak

Wildlife does not live in isolation from other wildlife

It is not only the survival of the wildlife moved that needs to be monitored, but the impact on the wider species population around the developed site. Wildlife does not stay in one place all its life, and groups of species do not exist in isolation. 

For example, High Speed 2 (HS2) and East West rail threaten a population of rare black hairstreak butterflies at Calvert Jubilee. Quite aside from the fact that the translocation of eggs is highly unlikely to work, the destruction of habitat could have far-reaching consequences beyond the population removed from Calvert Jubilee. 

In the surrounding countryside there are many small colonies that might only be able to exist as a result of butterflies occasionally leaving the larger population at Calvert Jubilee.

Translocating an entire population can inadvertently destroy many more fragile nearby populations. 

Bechstein's bat

Bechstein's bat

Similarly, destroying a habitat and moving the wildlife from it does nothing for the species that rely on the habitat as a stopping over place. It creates a hole in our green infrastructure, breaking up or blocking the corridors that wildlife moves along.

These interactions between groups of the same species, and between different species – are more fragile and complicated than we know. By the time we realise this, it is often too late.

What can we do instead?

The UK is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. If we are to improve this sorry state of affairs developments should ultimately be located away from fragile wildlife populations. We urgently need to stop viewing our wildlife as an inconvenience that can simply be moved out of the way. Developments should be planned in a way that considers the delicate network of life, before we damage it forever. Translocation and replacing destroyed habitat with a poor substitute for the original should be a last resort. 

It is clear that more research around the success of translocation projects is needed. It is no longer acceptable to just assume we can put wildlife wherever it suits us. Moving wildlife is no substitute to protecting the fragile habitats we have in the first place, and ensuring development is located in places where wildlife will not be harmed. 

Butterfly on a roadverge

We believe it's far better to avoid our precious wildlife in the first place, than to try to move it elsewhere. 

This is not to say that housing, commercial and infrastructure development is always a problem – if done it the right way it can contribute to nature’s recovery on land and at sea.  We do need homes, transportation and businesses - and we also need a healthy, wildlife-rich natural world.  In the long run, we cannot trade one off against the other.  Our health, wellbeing and prosperity ultimately depend on a healthy natural world.  If we destroy wildlife and nature, we destroy the economy.

We want the right kind of development, delivered in the right way, in the right place, so that it delivers everything we need – including helping the natural world to recover. This needs strong legislation. To that end, we are working hard to ensure that wildlife is properly taken into account in all major developments across our three counties. It is one reason why we are taking the government to court for a Judicial Review into the lack of Strategic Environmental Assessment for the Oxford-Cambridge expressway and associated corridor. We are also part of the Wildlife Trusts’ Wilder Future campaign, which aims to create strong new laws that put wildlife first in all new developments. 

We will continue to speak up for wildlife, to give it a voice in Berks, Bucks and Oxon so that we can ensure that wildlife and ecological networks are fully considered within the planning system before they are lost forever.

BBOWT scrutinises hundreds of planning applications every year to stand up for wildlife in our three counties.

Find out more about our planning work

Badger, Ratty, Mole and Toad are back

It's more than 100 years since Kenneth Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows. Sadly, since we first met Badger, Ratty and friends in 1908, the UK has become one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world. The Wildlife Trusts have re-imagined The Wind in the Willows in 2019, shedding light on some of the problems our wildlife faces every day.