HS2: activists race to stop high speed deforestation

Costly rail project has become the new frontline for UK climate action

The fate of HS2 will be decided within weeks as the government starts wrapping up its review of the controversial rail project. The question of whether or not to go ahead with it hinges on quite different issues depending on who you ask. For local government figures in the north of England urging Boris Johnson not to ditch it despite spiralling costs, it’s about whether the government is serious about investment in the north. After years of ‘getting the crumbs from the table’ as Labour leader of Manchester city council Sir Richard Leese put it, HS2’s supporters claim the rail line is crucial to delivering the regeneration the north deserves.

For activists from Stop HS2, Save the Colne Valley and Extinction Rebellion (XR), who gathered in the Colne Valley Regional Park to prevent tree-felling by HS2 last weekend, the issue with HS2 is seen as even more far-reaching. It’s about the need to change the way we live our lives and the UK stepping up to protect what remains of our natural heritage.

A lake between the Grand Union Canal and the Hillingdon Outdoor Activities Centre in the Colne Valley

Time to slow down

On Sunday – one of the few properly cold days we’ve had this winter – I tagged along with a group of XR activists on their way to join the protest camps pitched up along the eastern edge of the Colne Valley. Walking along the margin of a meadow on a path of partially frozen mud, I got a glimpse into the type of place the Colne Valley is: peaceful and verdant. Then we passed the tree line into the next meadow only to find most of it ringed off behind metal fencing erected by HS2.

I’ve been fighting HS2 for years because of my business,

said Sarah Green, one of the activists. ‘I run the passenger boat to the nature reserves on the Grand Union Canal through the middle of Colne Valley.’ HS2 will slice right across the canal, and even before construction is underway the area along the water, including nature reserves, has been transformed into a worksite, with large chunks of it blocked off by more fencing and the ground dug up.

HS2 has fenced off and dug up parts of the Colne Valley

You almost couldn’t find two modes of transport more unlike each other: a boat which travels practically at walking speed versus a train that will shoot through the countryside at 250 miles per hour. It’s a contrast which epitomises what Sarah and other activists I spoke to believe is at stake in the fight against HS2. In their view, HS2 is an outrageously expensive, nature-destroying manifestation of the ‘growth for growth’s sake’ mindset that is driving the world towards ecological and climate catastrophe.

At the protest camp beside Harvil Road, amid the rhythmic beating of XR drums and ‘discobedience’ practice, activist Greg Frey told me about a speech about HS2 he’d heard the mayor of Birmingham give. ‘At the end he goes, “Don’t we want to be a brave country, don’t we want to be a country that progresses and doesn’t get left behind.”

But this idea of progress – it’s totally blinkered.

Such competitiveness with other countries struck him as senseless. The message I heard across the two camps I visited was that, in a country as nature-depleted as the UK, with a climate emergency declared by parliament, we can no longer sacrifice what little natural habitat we have left at the altar of progress. ‘Where else are you going to draw the line?’ said Greg, meaning Colne Valley’s ancient woodlands and species-rich wetlands that are at risk from HS2.

In the succinct words of another of the activists: ‘We need to slow down.’

This is our Amazon

Though the protest camps have delayed some tree-felling by HS2, the company has already clear cut a large swathe of woodland on the other side of Harvil Road. You can see the stubbly tract of land where trees stood until so recently flanked by the remaining woodland, like the first strip of hair shaved off before someone buzzes the rest of their head.

Patch of woodland cut down by HS2

For several of the Colne Valley activists, it will be terribly hypocritical if the government okays HS2 and allows even more of this deforestation to occur. ‘We point the finger at Brazil, we point the finger at Indonesia, looking at how badly they’re treating their biodiversity and ecosystems, and yet…’ said Mark Keir, standing in the muddy middle of the camp beside the Hillingdon Outdoor Activities Centre. ‘An area the size of Hyde Park of woodland is just going to disappear here. And most of it like this is wet woodland, which is so bloody precious.’ If HS2 goes ahead, the UK won’t have a moral leg to stand on to encourage any other country to protect its natural habitats. And we barely had a leg to begin with.

Mark acknowledged that it wasn’t ideal for the camps to be present in the woods where the soil is fragile, but HS2’s refusal to stop tree-felling while the project is under review has necessitated the ongoing presence of activists to still their chainsaws. According to Mark and others, it was HS2’s bailiffs coming to evict the camp that made the place into a mud bath and lopped branches off some of the trees, presumably to deter activists from climbing them.

Chris Packham has said that ‘HS2 will be the largest deforestation programme since World War 1.’ Many activists see the battle to save the Colne Valley as our frontline. As one said,

This is our Amazon rainforest.

HS2 bailiffs cut branches cut off a tree in the camp