Why are you against people and dogs having access to Battlemead?
First, we have never been against people having access. It is absolutely right and to be encouraged that people should visit Battlemead. Our key point is that how the access is managed must come after deciding how best to protect and enhance the habitats and biodiversity there. What the Council has done is to develop a plan for footpaths and a car park etc and then asked ecologists to look at what the impact will be and how they can minimise the impact. That won’t work. If we can agree the ecology plan first and then determine the access we have a far better chance of getting the best of both worlds.
Isn’t the Council’s plan based on studies undertaken by professional ecologists? So why are you complaining?
Yes it is. The problem is two fold. First, the ecologists had to work from a brief that had specific footpath routes and the existence of a car park as a given: this made it much more difficult for them to identify how to maximise the potential biodiversity gain. Second, the appraisal methodology used by the consultants, a standard set of metrics, was not appropriate for a situation like Battlemead where the potentially most significant source of wildlife disturbance is human and other visitors. So their approach was OK as it far as it went but it did not go far enough. As a result the data on which the Council’s plans were based were faulty. For this reason we are undertaking further studies to establish the impact of such disruption.
The Council bought the land with ratepayers’ money so surely ratepayers should be able to enjoy access to it without you denying it?
We have never denied access and the argument that ratepayers have an automatic right to have a free hand at Battlemead takes a very narrow view of public benefit. If we give in to this argument we will have an open space for people to enjoy but what does that enjoyment entail and what are you missing by taking the short-term view? We believe that, by ensuring from the start that this can be a special place for our wildlife you create an environment that will give far greater pleasure to more people for much longer. The dogs dimension is one of the key issues: allowing off-lead access over much of the site will without question downgrade the habitats and will reduce what many people come to see: remember that dog owners account for less than a quarter of the population; and many of the people who support our views are dog-owners.
What’s the problem with dogs? Isn’t it just that you don’t like dogs and want selfishly to stop dog-owners from exercising their pets?
It’s an unfortunate reality that dogs let loose in this type of environment, where there is a range of wildlife, have a dramatic impact. This is based on clear evidence from studies in the UK and abroad. For example bird numbers reduced by xx% and the variety of species on sites studies reduced by yy%. Dogs at Battlemead killed four geese after the Council opened up part of the land and before new fencing was put up and over-wintering ducks were easily disturbed and flushed out by people and dogs.
Will you accept dogs on a lead?
This is certainly a discussion we’re having. A survey we undertook in the early Summer of 2020 showed that, despite clear signage to keep dogs on a lead, more than half of the dog owners visiting the site let their dogs off the lead. If people and dogs keep to the footpaths this does not have to be a problem (though we are already seeing a dog faeces (and litter) problem there). As ever it comes down to whether people will act responsibly: sadly this is not always the case.
You say that there are plenty of places in the Borough where people and dogs are free to roam. But there are also large areas where the public is not allowed and which provide havens for wildlife. Aren’t you just pushing your own eco agenda?
First, the Borough does not own large tracts of such places and, having declared an Environment and Climate Emergency with enhancement of biodiversity a key component, we believe that it must use the recent acquisition to deliver on that commitment. We also stress that this is a very easy ‘quick win’ for the Emergency strategy: the land has great potential for biodiversity gain and there are no prior public rights to access, so we are not taking any rights away.
How many people do you represent?
WildCookham and Wild Maidenhead between them have some 2000 supporters and growing rapidly. There are now 6 Wild groups in the Borough and we expect to see more. This is way more than a fringe group and it reflects the growing concern among all groups about the issues we raise.
Won’t what you want cost money the council does not have?
The Council has already spent a very large sum putting up fencing and other measures at Battlemead without working out a long-term vision and strategy for the land. Whatever approach is required will involve money. Our approach, creating an environment which is exciting and with a long-term future, will attract the active support of local volunteers and will open up the opportunity to access funds for environmental protection which will not be available for a public park.
Aren’t you just a bunch of eco-warrior tree huggers with too much time on your hands?
Sure, to some extent: we care about this stuff but with reason. And we don’t do this just because we like furry animals and birds. Look at the facts. Bird and insect populations have generally fallen by between 50 and 90+per cent in the past 70 years. A quarter of all UK mammal species are now under threat of extinction. We have lost vast swathes of habitat that were home to all of the planet’s species other than us. And this is part of a context that sees dramatic climate change due to rising and still accelerating temperatures. We believe that we have a responsibility to take steps to help turn this round – and the Council is committed to it. Does that make us eco-warriors? If yes, then so be it. But what does it make the people who turn a blind eye?
The Council made it clear that this was being acquired as an open space for public use. What gives you the right to change that?
Two key reasons. First, the Council did no surveys of the land before they bought it. If they had they would have realised- as happened when they subsequently talked to their own ecologists and sought external professional advice – that Battlemead was an ecologically important site with good potential for environmental enhancement. So the initial statements made by the Council were not based on sound evidence. Second, since acquiring the land the Council has declared an Environment and Climate Emergency, and has subsequently (June 2020) announced a strategy for this which has protection and enhancement of the Borough’s Natural Capital as one of the four key pillars. Given that there were no prior public rights over the land and that it offered an easy ‘quick win’ (both to take positive action and to demonstrate the Council’s commitment), the earlier plans for the site should have been reviewed. They were not.
You have been very vocal in criticising the Council’s plans. What would the wildlife groups like to see?
Our main concern has been the failure of process. The Council agreed to terms of reference for the its Friends of Battlemead group that put protection and enhancement of the wildlife as the first priority, whilst stressing that public access had to be assured. The Council should have agreed a clear vision and strategy to do just that and, in this way, to achieve, as far as possible, the greatest biodiversity gain from the land. Having set this out it should then have looked at how best to accommodate public access – not just for walkers but for people wanting to view the wildlife – for example, special viewing places, hides. The plan would be for the long-term: these things take time. But the result (and it can still be this)should offer the residents of the Borough a whole range of benefits in terms of wildlife, footpaths, school/educational facilities, opportunities to study the habitats etc – as well as biodiversity gain. The current plans are a pale imitation of this, lacking imagination and failing to address some of the big challenges we face.