Norfolk wildlife haven bulldozed


A wildflower meadow in Heigham Park, Norwich, containing 130 different flowering plants, dragonflies and rare bats has been bulldozed.

The meadow, which flourished on the site of Norwich's last public grass tennis courts, is due to become all-weather hard courts at cost of £266,000, complete with floodlights and fencing.

Since their closure in 2017, the 10 grass courts have rewilded naturally, becoming home to species including Whiskered and Brown Long-eared Bats, European Hedgehog, Pygmy Shrew and 18 species of dragonfly.

A petition, signed by hundreds of local residents, sought to preserve the site as a natural haven. Instead, Norwich City Council has chosen to proceed with the plan, clearing the wildflower meadow earlier this month.

In 2018, when the site was last surveyed, council ecologists, concluded that the 1-acre area was of "negligible wildlife value". Since then, however, the courts have been rapidly colonised by wildflowers and species including Yellow Oat Grass and Lesser Hawkbit.

A recent two-hour survey by independent, professional ecologists and local naturalists discovered an array of notable species, including Great Green Bush-cricket and Norfolk Hawker dragonfly, and six species of bat – two of which, Whiskered and Brown Long-eared, are known to be light-sensitive.

The site is home to a range of rare and notable species, including Norfolk Hawker (Marc Heath).

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Sarah Gelpke, the ecologist who led the survey, said: "This isn't a tennis court, this is a biodiversity hot-spot now, an 'emergence meadow' that if managed as a meadow would've become of high value.

"The sad tale of Heigham Park is being repeated all over the country. There's a lesson here for other councils and people desperately trying to keep wildlife in urban areas – look at your urban areas as a haven, and not a place to put a tennis court that you don’t even need."

Local residents consider that councils did not consult them on the plan to construct the all-weather courts, while The Gardens Trust opposed the plans as they do not respect the park's historic character, which is Grade II listed. Campaigners also argue that the council failed to undertake a detailed bat survey, with council-employed ecologists instead undertaking a daytime walkaround to look for bat roosts.

Denise Carlo, a local Green councillor, said in an interview with The Guardian: "There are so many open spaces being lost in cities. If we're serious about creating climate-resilient communities we're going to have to reduce the amount of hard cover, not increase it. All over the country, grass is being turned over to all-weather sports pitches – grass is very valuable but it's a diminishing resource in cities."

In response, a spokesperson for Norwich City Council stated: "This project will improve facilities for our residents in a historic and much-loved park.

"The importance of delivering these all-weather courts can’t be underestimated in terms of the associated year-round health benefits, as well as reducing antisocial behaviour and vandalism through the increased use of the park.

"Formal consultation took place in 2017 as part of the original planning application process. Independent heritage and ecological impact assessments have also been carried out, alongside equality impact assessments, to inform our proposals."