22 September 2013

Three SSSIs threatened by Heathrow third runway south-west option

A little over three years since the present coalition government stated in their manifesto1 that "we will cancel the third runway at Heathrow", they are already wavering from their "joint ambitions for a low carbon and eco-friendly economy", and once again considering a third runway at Heathrow as a possible means of increasing UK hub airport capacity and economic growth.

On 17 July 2013, Heathrow submitted a proposal to the Airports Commission outlining three options for expansion (for a third and even a forth runway). Much has appeared in the press about how each of the proposed options will affect local communities, but almost nothing has been mentioned about the impact on the natural environment, and that the three proposals threaten seven Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).

One of the options - a third runway and terminal built to the south-west of Heathrow, and Heathrow's preferred choice - would devastate my local patch, Staines Moor, which would completely disappear under the concrete and a new reservoir. Three SSSIs would be affected - Staines Moor SSSI (comprising Staines Moor, part of Stanwell Moor, King George VI Reservoir, Staines Reservoirs, Poyle Meadow and Shortwood Common) and Wraysbury & Hythe End Gravel Pits SSSI, would both be largely wiped out, and part of a third, Wraysbury Reservoir SSSI, would also be lost. In addition, Stanwell Moor, including Stanwell Moor Village, would vanish, and other local communities greatly affected.

Staines Moor and Stanwell Moor are both important sites for biodiversity in the lower Colne valley. The ancient alluvial meadows of Staines Moor, a very rare habitat in Greater London, are the largest in Surrey, and have changed little over the last 1,000 years. Staines Moor is one of the very few places in Britain that has not been ploughed, which has allowed 180 year old anthills of the Yellow Meadow Ant Lasius flavus, Britain's oldest, to form4.

Staines Moor also has a rich flora with over 300 plant species, including the nationally scarce Small water-pepper Polygonum minus, and Brown Galingale Cyperus fuscus (found in only two other sites in Britain), and several species uncommon in Surrey including: Brown Sedge Carex disticha, Southern Marsh-orchid Dactylorhiza praetermissa, Marsh Stitchwort Stellaria palustris, Strawberry Clover Trifolium fragiferum, Marsh Arrowgrass Triglochin palustris, Meadow Rue Thalictrum flavum, Upright Chickweed Moenchia erecta and Water Crowfoot Ranunculus peltatus. This plant diversity supports 22 species of butterfly and over 60 species of mollusc.

An incredible 190 bird species have been recorded at Staines Moor3. Five species on the IUCN red list breed: Northern Lapwing, Cuckoo, Skylark, Song Thrush, and Linnet3, and the Moor is an important feeding ground for a sixth red listed species, Starling, that breeds in good numbers at nearby Stanwell Moor Village. Together with Stanwell Moor, Staines Moor is the last breeding site for Redshank in the lower Colne valley, and both moors are also important for passage migrants such as Yellow Wagtail, Ring Ouzel, Whinchat and Northern Wheatear, as well as winter visitors such as Short-eared Owl, Water Pipit and various wildfowl.

Registered commoners have been grazing cattle and horses on Staines Moor since at least 1065, creating a highly diverse neutral
grassland habitat, rare in Greater London, supporting a wealth of plant and invertebrate life, as well as threatened breeding birds,
and visitors such as Yellow Wagtail - a recent addition to the IUCN red list5.

Staines Moor and Stanwell Moor are the last breeding sites in the lower Colne Valley for the amber listed Redshank

Short-eared Owls frequently overwinter on both Staines and Stanwell Moors, and Barn Owl and Little Owls are resident

King George VI and Staines Reservoirs are nationally important for wintering wildfowl, supporting over one per cent of the total British wintering populations of Tufted Duck, Pochard, Goosander and Northern Shoveler4 (the later also occurring in internationally significant numbers), and are also important feeding and resting sites for migrant waders. Wraysbury & Hythe End Gravel Pits SSSI supports important numbers of Gadwall, and in winter, Goosander, and Wraysbury Reservoir SSSI is also important for wintering wildfowl as well as Great Crested Grebe.

In addition to supporting a nationally scarce flora and fauna, Staines Moor SSSI also provides flood protection, particularly for Staines-upon-Thames, and is a valuable resource for local communities as well as for commoners for grazing cattle and horses.

Of course, Heathrow have not overlooked the three SSSIs on the land required for the south-west option. This is simply yet another case of a business selfishly lobbying for it's own interests regardless of any environmental degradation that may arise. SSSIs in England and Wales are protected by law under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, but experience shows that national and local governments have simply ignored SSSI status in the past to green light developments (just look at Twyford Down SSSI in the early 1990s as an example), and I have very little confidence that the legal protection of these SSSIs alone is enough to block this proposal.

Worryingly, the coalition is now pushing to introduce Biodiversity Offsetting in the UK, a fundamentally flawed concept that simply enables developers to build over areas important for nature more easily, by offering alternative sites as compensation. In their green paper published early this month2, DEFRA state that an offset for an SSSI must provide "the same type of habitat as close as possible to the Site of Special Scientific Interest that would be harmed". In the case of Staines Moor, it is impossible to mitigate for the destruction of this irreplaceable, complex and highly biodiverse ecosystem, and it is an unsustainable and single-minded economy that continues to destroy such places.


1 The Coalition (2010) Our Programme for Government. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/78977/coalition_programme_for_government.pdf (Accessed: 17 September 2013).
2 Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (2013) Biodiversity Offsetting in England. Available at: https://consult.defra.gov.uk/biodiversity/biodiversity_offsetting (Accessed: 22 September 2013).
3 Dingain, L. (2013) The Avian History of Staines Moor. Lond. Bird Rep. 76: 222-234.
4 Natural England (1984) Staines Moor SSSI Citation. Available at: http://www.sssi.naturalengland.org.uk/citation/citation_photo/1001792.pdf (Accessed: 20 September 2013).
5 Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (2009) Birds of Conservation Concern. Availabe at: http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/BoCC_tcm9-217852.pdf (Accessed: 17 September 2013).


  1. Very well put Lee, these people only see pound signs and nature to them comes a sorry last on the list of priorities. steve

  2. Thanks for this Lee. Really inspiring. I suppose the question the media will ask you when it comes to battle-lines being drawn is whether migratory birds will simply, well, migrate to other patches? If Heathrow invests in development of a new greenfield site, so to speak, will this not stimulate migration, diversity and evolution elsewhere? What in other words, would be irreparably lost if Staines Moor was filled with concrete? Damian, University of Manchester

    1. Many thanks Damian. Staines Moor is the product of both a good quality semi-natural ecosystem (the Moor was once a clearing in the ancient Forest of Windsor), and over a thousand years of low intensity human land use, and this has allowed a very special biodiversity to establish. In other words, the site is unique and is therefore impossible to recreate elsewhere. Birds are just the tip of the iceberg. Some of the plant communities at Staines Moor are closely associated with the ant hills, and several species are very rare in Britain. So I would certainly argue that the flora of Staines Moor would be irreparably lost. Regionally scarce breeding birds such as Cuckoo, that are still doing well at Staines Moor, would also be lost, and at a time when they are declining nationally at an alarming rate.

  3. Wonderful stuff Lee, thanks. I imagine you will be much in demand on the media if the Davies Commission favors the Heathrow R3 scheme. I've also sent you an email to your gmail account.

  4. Staines Moor was my "patch" from an early age to when we moved away from Staines at around age 13 - that was back in the 70s. When I first started going there the old lino factory was still there. I went back a year or so ago and couldn't believe how much the moor had changed. The Eastern side stream was virtually blocked - I remember it as quite a nice fast, free flowing stream where I regularly fished, catching some good sized fish there. The wood bordering it looked neglected, overgrown, and storm damaged. The Egrets are new too - and quite pretty to look at. I see the Moor has become infected by Parakeets too - what a racket - though not as bad as the planes taking off - a lot more frequently than I remember as a child! I couldn't believe the number of dog walkers - back in the day I would roam for hours without meeting a soul. I guess it's the dogs why I didn't see any Lapwings there. The place used to be full of them - if you walked anywhere near their nests they'd be swooping and peewitting at you. I didn't see a single one when I was there. Redshanks and Oystercatchers used to be quite common in the Winter there - not sure what it's like now. On the very far West, close to Moor Lane, there used to be a meadow by the river where often you'd find a gypsy caravan, and a few gypsy horses grazing. The place is now completely overgrown - I didn't recognize it at first - it was only when I saw the low bridge that I realized where I was. Not sure whether it was neglect or part of a plan to "revert" the moor. The gypsies seem to be long gone too. Anyway - it would be a crying shame if they built the runway over it. One group or other has been plotting to destroy the moor for as long as I can remember - housing developers, gravel raising companies and now the government. They'll get it in the end - but I'm hoping they don't. I for one am glad to have known it in its prime.

    1. Many thanks for your comment. It's fascinating to read about how Staines Moor used to be, but depressing to see how much it has degraded over a relatively short period of time. The threat from Heathrow aside, disturbance from dog walkers is one of the most urgent problems to address in order to allow breeding and wintering waders to re-establish (Lapwing ceased to breed only in the last couple of years, and wintering waders are very scarce). On the brighter note, Spelthorne Borough Council have started restoration work on the Moor and plan to increase the wet areas, coppice the woods along the Bonehead Ditch, and increase grazing. You might be interested in an article on the Avian History of Staines Moor, that will be published in the next London Bird Report (around December 2013).