Tunnel vision at Micheldever

Old industrial sites can be havens for wildlife, writes our Planning specialist Trevor

Late in 2012 a planning application was submitted to Hampshire County Council to construct a high technology plant to generate gas and electricity from waste. The location of the proposal was on the disused oil terminal next to Micheldever Station.

At first sight a disused oil terminal is not an obvious place for wildlife. The terminal is an old industrial site cut into the chalk hillside next to the mainline railway tunnel. The land around the tunnels at Micheldever has been renowned for rare wild plants for over a century. When Victorians engineers built the London and Southampton Railway through Micheldever they cut through the historic landscapes of Popham Beacons.

Old maps of the beacons show the ancient burial mounds of our Bronze Age ancestors set within a landscape of chalk grasslands and grazed woodlands. We don’t know what wildlife was at Micheldever when the railway was built but it is likely the wildflowers growing there went on to colonise the cuttings and spoil heaps thrown up by the tunnelling works.

Amongst the species for which Micheldever is renowned are the nationally rare and legally protected Cut-leaved Germander and the nationally scarce Spring Cinquefoil.

Spring cinquefoil

© Philip Precey

The Cut-leaved Germander was first recorded in 1911 ‘by [the] railway near Popham Beacons’ by Miss C.R. Scott. The first record for Spring Cinquefoil is by G.A.R Watts in 1933 who described it from the ‘railway bank at Micheldever Station’. The 1933 specimens are preserved in the British Museum.

There are many other rarities known from Micheldever including Red Hemp-nettle, Dwarf Mouse-ear, Fine-leaved Sandwort, Mat-grass fescue and the Wall Bedstraw.

The Trust advised the County Council of the known and potential wildlife interest of the application site. Our advice triggered detailed surveys by consultants on behalf of the developer which confirmed the importance of the site not only for wildflowers but also for the ‘lower plants’ of mosses and lichen. The results of the consultants studies showed the planning application site to be as important, if not more so, than the neighbouring spoil heaps above the tunnels.

Parts of the railway land at Micheldever are protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The SSSI has the rather unlovely official name of Micheldever Spoilheaps whilst the local people call the area ‘The Chalkies’. The Wildlife Trust has a long history of working with the Roundwood Estate who care for most of the SSSI. A small outlier of The Chalkies is one of the Wildlife Trusts smaller freehold nature reserves with a colourful show of chalkland plants.

After much debate the planning application was finally determined in June 2014. The development was rejected on many grounds including because of its importance for wildlife.

The full story can be read on the County Council website.

The future of the application site is uncertain. The Wildlife Trust believes that there is strong evidence that the site is of national importance. There is a case that the Micheldever Spoilheaps SSSI should be extended to include the former application site. There is a risk that a future proposal will seek to follow the suggestion that the wildlife can be accommodated on a nearby field which could be engineered to fit. Whilst there is no scientific evidence to support the likely success of such a suggestion the idea was promoted shortly before the final decision to refuse permission was made.

What lessons can we learn from this case? Our richest wildlife may be found in superficially incongruous places, the Wildlife Trust can make sure importance places are not overlooked. The refusal of a planning application is however rarely the end of the story and it falls on us to ensure the importance of Micheldever for wildlife continues to be appreciated and respected.