Wednesday, 25 February 2009

The saga of Grove Wood Jan 2008 - Feb 2009

Grove Wood is in a Conservation Area which means that you must first apply for permission to fell trees over a certain size. But in January 2008 the new landowner, Mr. Houshang Jafari-Najafabadfi, flattened a large area of woodland opposite River View. People contacted the Bristol City Council (BCC) and other agencies and Council Officers were sent to stop the works. However, the damage had been done and where there were previously dozens of trees there was now a wasteland. The hillside had also been stripped of soil and the whole lot was piled up against the remaining trees to form a bank or 'bund' along the public footpath next to the river.

Believing that BCC would prosecute the owner and force him to replant what he'd cut down people were hopeful that the damage would eventually be put right. However, despite a public outcry, BCC decided that all of the trees that were felled were either 'dead, dying or dangerous' or too small and so the landowner was effectively given retrospective permission to fell the trees. Local people measured the diameters of the trees that were felled and found abundant evidence, that can still be seen today, that large healthy trees were actually felled.

Protected species such as kingfishers and otters had been regularly using the riverbank in Grove Wood. After the clearance otters disappeared but kingfishers took advantage of the extra cover afforded by the bund and started to build nest sites along the river. It was at this time that Snuff Mills Action Group (SMAG) was formed and Grove Wood soon became on of its top priorities.

In May 2008 a large white shipping container was planted in the wood. Once again no planning permission was sought by the owner and BCC again decided that this wasn’t illegal as they deemed it ‘permitted development’ because it was a ‘temporary’ structure to be used while work was carried out in the woods. The container is still there 10 months later and it has only been used for two very brief periods. BCC is now looking into exactly what ‘temporary’ means.

In June 2008 there was a period when wildlife was disturbed by workmen strimming away undergrowth next to sensitive breeding areas and along the riverbank. Smoke from fires hung over the valley for several days and this caused many residents to make complaints to the Council. One of the results of all this disturbance was that the kingfishers abandoned their nest in Grove Wood. Meanwhile, the landowner had put in an application to fell 27 large trees on the edge of the wood next to Blackberry Hill.

The landowner also tried to block access to the upper footpath that leads to Laundry Field. To begin with he placed plastic orange road barriers across the path, but these were removed by walkers almost immediately. This path has been used for generations as of right and SMAG is trying to get the footpath registered as a Public Right Of Way to preserve access. This seemed all the more urgent when the landowner had loads of metal fence panels erected along the edge of the lower footpath to block access to the rest of the woods. The fence was vandalised after just a few days and was left lying across the footpath, causing a hazard to walkers. BCC were approached about this but nothing was done until SMAG members removed the damaged panels from the footpath and stacked them behind the shipping container.

There was then a period of calm and the woods fell silent again. However, the otters took nearly a year to return and the kingfishers did not manage to nest successfully after all the disturbances.

After a hard-fought campaign with public protests and over 118 formal complaints from the public, BCC finally applied a blanket Tree Preservation Order (TPO) to the whole of Grove Wood in October 2008. This means that if any tree is damaged or felled, regardless of its size, the perpetrator can be prosecuted and heavily fined. The TPO is currently in force but it seems the owner is objecting to it. BCC will consider his objection, but people are left wondering why the owner would mind a TPO being placed on his woodland if he had no intention of removing trees or building on the land as he has frequently stated.

The Environment Agency (EA) had requested that the bund be removed as they considered it created a flood risk. However, the bund has actually become a haven for protected wildlife and so the EA were persuaded to take a more pragmatic approach to this and the bund will not now be removed - at least until this year's bird breeding season is over.

In January 2009, almost a year to the day after the original clear felling, the owner once again reappeared with his workmen and re-erected the fencing opposite River View to try to block access to the upper footpath. To prevent it from falling they hauled logs from the bund and dropped them haphazardly against the base of the fence. Nevertheless the fence has now partly collapsed as it did before. Complaints have once again been made about the unsightly appearance of the fencing and the container and of course the otters have disappeared again.

Addendum: The owner has since re-erected the fallen fencing and added circular and triangular arrangements of more fence panels to prevent it from collasping so that there are now many more panels in the woods and along the footpath. However, members of the public have once again removed the panels blocking the upper path and walkers, ramblers, joggers, etc are using it once more.