Outcry at Ealing Council plans to build on London skylark breeding ground

 (David Gordon Davy )
(David Gordon Davy )

Ealing Council has been criticised for plans to build sports facilities on the site of one of London’s most significant skylark breeding grounds.

Wildlife experts have warned the plans to build football and cricket pitches on Warren Farm Nature Reserve will “signal their extinction”. There are also at least 15 locally important plant species that are dependent upon the site.

Dilapidated sports facilities on Warren Farm, a 61-acre urban meadow near Southall, have been left unused for years, making way for rare plant and animal species such as skylarks, barn owls and bats.

The skylarks are the closest breeding population to central London and are a “significant proportion” of the capital’s overall breeding population, Sean McCormack, chair of the Ealing Wildlife Group, told the Standard.

Ealing Council, however, said it needs to build at least four to five cricket pitches in the next five years to meet demand, more football pitches to meet large growth in female football, and changing facilities.

The council voted yes to the development during a cabinet meeting on January 25, and laid out three “indicative” options for the project which include up to eight football pitches being overlaid with cricket grounds at the edge of the green space to “minimise impact”.

Mr McCormack said if half the site is developed for sports not only will the skylarks lose cover to breed in “they will be condensed into a tighter area, as will humans and dogs so they will be more prone to disturbance and predation”.

“Warren Farm needs to be preserved in totality, sacrificing half of it for sports will not halve the skylark population, it will signal their extinction.”

Warren Farm (Katie Boyles)
Warren Farm (Katie Boyles)

Warren Farm Nature Reserve campaign organiser Katie Boyles said if structures were built on the nature reserve, predators such as crows could perch on top and “pick off” skylark chicks, because they nest on the ground.

“The wide open space is purely why [the skylarks] are here,” she told the Standard.

“Skylarks have declined so massively in the UK as it is because habitats aren’t there for them.

“If we lose all the skylarks and they go forever, then what is next?”

More than 20,000 people have signed a petition opposing the council’s proposed plans and hundreds protested outside Ealing Town Hall last month.

Protests at Ealing Town Hall in February (Katie Boyles)
Protests at Ealing Town Hall in February (Katie Boyles)

Council deputy leader Deirdre Costigan said, in the cabinet meeting, that sports grounds would help to address overcrowding and serious health inequalities in the Southall area.

To mitigate wildlife concerns, she said the council has negotiated a deal with Imperial College to manage its land nearby on a 99-year lease, without the council having to pay a penny.

The land would be incorporated into Warren Farm and under proposals, at least 62 per cent of the expanded Warren Farm would be made into a nature reserve, making it London’s largest rewilding scheme.

The sports pitches would only take up a maximum of 38 per cent of the reserve, Ms Costigan vowed.

“This is a win-win for the community,” she said.

“As a council we have a responsibility to balance the needs of everybody in the community, and that’s how we approached Warren Farm.”

Council plans for Warren Farm (Ealing Council)
Council plans for Warren Farm (Ealing Council)

But Ms Boyles said the council is “green washing” the issue and “ignoring their own policies”.

She said the council’s own biodiversity plan acknowledges that skylarks only breed in Warren Farm Nature Reserve, and the land owned by Imperial College does not host the same array of biodiversity.

Dr Mark Spencer, botanist from the London Natural History Society, said: “Aside from skylark there are other at risk species on Warren Farm. Copse bindweed and Corn Spurrey, are both at risk of extinction nationally and are very close to extinction in Greater London.

“The council’s proposals are based on an absence of evidence, without suitable ecology surveys and a review of Warren Farm’s Site of Importance for Nature Conservation status the council is not following the Mayor of London’s own guidance.”

It has been claimed that a majority of residents opposed the council’s plans during public consultation last year.

But Ealing Council said there was a “disproportionate number of respondents” from outside the local area.

“That does not mean the results were discounted. The council came to a decision by examining and analysing the survey results, understanding the aspirations of our residents and by looking at the data on the need for additional facilities from national sports governing bodies,” a spokesperson told the Standard.

“We used all of the information available to us, including public health data, to come to the recommendations in the Cabinet report.”

The council said it wants to protect “rare and valuable” wildlife on Warren Farm but it also believes “that our young people deserve to have sports facilities nearby again”.

“The council continues to manage the site working with local interest groups to respect the nesting skylarks. Further biodiversity and nature-based studies will be undertaken in future stages of the project.”

The council said further announcements will be made “in the coming months”.

During Mayor’s Question Time on Thursday, Sadiq Khan was urged to write to Ealing Council and put a stop to the proposed development.

Liberal Democrat Assembly Member Hina Bokhari said 20 endangered species could reside at Warren Farm and the council has ignored warnings from experts. She said the council is dead set on “knowingly destroying habitats”.

“Will you write to the Labour leader of Ealing Council, caling on him oto reconsider the plans and save Warren Farm?” she asked the Mayor.

Mr Khan said his team will consider if the plan is in accordance with his London plan.