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Stonehenge road re-think threatens recovery of rarest bird


Plans to build a road tunnel to ease congestion near Stonehenge could soon be scrapped threatening the government-backed recovery of one of Britain’s rarest birds.

Two over-ground alternatives to the tunnel – set to be detailed in consultation documents due today - would destroy nesting and roosting sites of the secretive stone-curlew. The bird has two UK strongholds, one of which is the area surrounding the Stonehenge World Heritage Site. The new road plans would also harm prospects for more than 25 other bird species and at least 14 types of butterfly.

The tunnel was given the go ahead by the government after a public inquiry in 2004, when ministers called it an ‘exceptional environmental scheme’. But the Highways Agency now says revised costs make the 2.1km tunnel more expensive.

Tony Richardson, Director of the RSPB’s South-West Region said: “A completely new road through the Stonehenge site is unthinkable not only because of its obvious archaeological value but also because of the public outcry it will spark amongst the millions of people who value Britain’s wildlife.

“It is less than six months since we hit targets for stone-curlew recovery both nationally and in the south-west, where one third of the UK’s population is found. Approval for any over-ground route will make a mockery of the government’s desire to get this mysterious and vulnerable bird back on its feet.”

The Highways Agency has raised its estimate of tunnel costs from £284 million to £470m blaming complications that will make tunneling more difficult. A number of alternatives are likely to be published today including re-routing of the A303 over-ground instead, either north or south of Stonehenge

The southern route would destroy two-thirds of the RSPB’s Normanton Down Reserve and split the remainder, reducing its value to wildlife. The reserve is part of the Stonehenge World Heritage Site and boasts Britain’s most important Bronze Age barrow cemetery. The site is also an invaluable feeding ground for stone-curlews before they leave on migration. Last year 19 birds were seen together, using the area as a direct result of improved habitat management.

The northern option would run close to the Salisbury Plain Special Protection Area (SPA), a site protected by European wildlife laws. The road scheme would damage the potential of that land for increasing stone-curlew numbers.

Stonehenge lies close to the SPA, which together with Porton Down and Normanton Down forms north-west Europe’s largest network of chalk grassland. Corn bunting, skylark and lapwing are amongst declining birds using the area together with butterflies such as the grizzled skipper, one of several disappearing chalkland specialists. The harebell and dropwort are amongst thriving plants that are rare elsewhere.

The RSPB believes the government should not consider the northern or southern over-ground routes as viable options and hopes that the review process will lead to the adoption of route less damaging for the area’s wildlife.

Tony Richardson said: “Future generations will thank the government of today if it safeguards the Stonehenge area from the irreversible destruction that an over-ground road will cause. Such a road would be an unforgivable addition to the threats that many species already face.”

Cath Harris | alfa
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