If you live in the north, you will almost certainly be aware of the ongoing pressure from local politicians and some businesses to complete a project to fully dual the A1 between Morpeth and Berwick-upon-Tweed. If you were to believe some of what is written about this valiant campaign of many decades standing, it will transform the lives of Northumbrians, reducing accidents, shortening journeys and opening up life-changing levels of investment in the local economy (or more opportunities for developers and large house builders, depending on your viewpoint).
Many of the local birders up here travel this stretch of the A1 fairly regularly, whether it's to commute between home and work, reach some of the prime birding destinations such as Holy Island or Low Newton or just getting to and from Newcastle for a curry and a beer. While this produces the occasional 'seen from moving car' bird sighting in the local WhatsApp group, there's also a steady stream of roadkill reports.
The A1 in Northumberland has proved a deadly stretch of road for owls, like this Barn Owl, in recent years (@Ipin_by_the_sea via X).
After the many Common Pheasants and Woodpigeons, which are simply so numerous that nobody notices them anymore, it's fair to say that some sections of the A1 appear to be particularly deadly for the Northumberland owl population. Over the last two and a half years there have been a minimum of 21 separate road casualty Barn Owls, and at least one each of Long-eared Owl and Tawny Owls recorded along the A1 between Seaton Burn in the south and Berwick in the north. A look at the specific locations recorded for each shows that almost all were in sections of the road that are currently dual carriageway.
Road to ruin
While the numbers above are anecdotal, I would point interested parties towards Traffication, the newly released book by Dumfries and Galloway-based birder and writer Paul Donald (see Birdwatch 373: 61). As Paul puts it, roads are 'conservation's blind spot' because they create 'broad, overlapping bands of environmental damage that drive down wildlife populations and fundamentally alter the structure of natural communities over much of our countryside.'
At a time when nature everywhere is facing increased pressure from the impacts of climate change and human encroachment, with many species driven from huge parts of Britain by the loss of habitats and ever greater human development, do we really need more (or faster) roads? I see little consideration for the natural world in the plans to fully dual the A1 through Northumberland. Sure, in the short term it might shorten a few journeys (though evidence suggests that these roads quickly fill up with increased traffic, thus negating the journey savings relatively quickly). But at what cost to the lives of all the species we share the space with?
Road casualties are perhaps the most visible downside of doubling the carriageways but there are unquestionably other negatives, whether it's habitat fragmentation, increases in traffic volume and the littering that roads bring. There are numerous sound environmental reasons to reject the seemingly endless calls for the north to be 'levelled up' with other areas of the country that appear to my eyes to have often been in a race to the bottom of the barrel when it comes to nature conservation.
Of course, new roads and the dualling of existing roads aren't exclusive to the north, but as a region that is less developed and perhaps more wildlife-friendly as a result we really need to be cautious in a rush for development and instil that caution in our local decision makers.
- This column first appeared in the September 2023 edition of Birdwatch.