Published: 06:00, 06 September 2021
| Updated: 16:39, 06 September 2021
"Disturbing" plans to tear down "healthy trees" which are home to 11 species of bats have been met with upset and anger.
The Environment Agency (EA) will start maintenance work at Mill Leese woodland, which is part of an old railway embankment near Saltwood Castle in Saltwood, near Hythe, this month.
The public body says the work - which includes felling trees and removing vegetation and debris - is to prevent flooding in Hythe, as the woodland includes a reservoir which acts as a flood storage area.
But residents say the work is unnecessary, will harm wildlife and will ruin an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
A report from the EA confirms that the "embankment and the vegetation present provides an important foraging and commuting corridor for the local bat population" and "provides a crucial link for confirmed roosts at Saltwood Castle and the wider landscape".
Ailish Erskine, 24, from Saltwood, regularly walks in the woodland. She said: "The contradiction of claiming the work is being done for the purpose of flood prevention, whilst ripping up trees (that are proven to prevent flooding) feels unbelievably detrimental to the environment.
"Whilst the trees themselves have been shown to be home to over 11 different species of bats, along with other vegetation such as fallen branches and ivy, the work presents a greater threat to the environment than the hypothetical one it wishes to solve.
"As an organisation who themselves claim to be protectors of the environment, the true nature of the damaging work they plan to do is deeply worrying.
"At the point where the EA is not looking after the environment, but damaging it further, we as the public have to step in to protect our home."
Mike Slade, 58, also from Saltwood, has been walking his dogs in the woods for 30 years, and also enjoys bird watching there.
He said: "It is everyone's favourite spot that joins Saltwood to Hythe.
"But apparently the EA wants to fell the trees so that that a couple of staff can inspect the associated embankment twice a year.
"What’s even more upsetting is that half the trees are being felled merely to gain access to the half they want to fell.
"I've not found anyone who doesn't think that removing the trees will actually weaken the bank there.
"All the official report talk of enhancement and improvement, and they really mean felling. It's disfiguring an AONB and calling it maintenance."
Earlier this month, worried residents gathered at the woodland, with some holding signs reading 'save the trees'.
Kent County Councillor Rory Love (Con) was among the people to come together.
He said: "We wanted to highlight the extraordinary and disturbing plans by the EA to remove dozens of healthy trees, shrubs, and naturally-decaying fallen branches from the privately-owned site in the Kent Downs AONB.
"The EA need to explain how destroying the habitat of 11 species of bats, and countless other animals right down to insects and wood bugs, is intended to assist in flood mitigation."
Saltwood Parish Council is also confused over the plans, with chair of the council, Cllr Frank Boland, writing letters to Damian Collins, the district's MP, and Carrie Johnson, wife of the Prime Minister, listing his concerns.
In his letter to Mr Collins, Cllr Boland said: "The EA has classified this flood storage area as a 'reservoir' because it can be said to fit the rather woolly definition set out in the 1975 Reservoirs Act.
"However, the common understanding of a reservoir is a permanently maintained body of water: Mill Leese is no such thing - most of the time it is completely dry and a public bridleway runs through the middle of it.
"It is only used for storing water for short periods on the very rare occasions when there is prolonged very heavy rainfall after which the water is released downstream or simply seeps away by itself.
"Regarding it as a reservoir, the EA has calculated a 'probable maximum flood level' (actually, in common sense terms, a grotesquely 'improbable' level) that is some 10 metres above the designed capacity of the flood storage area, which itself has not been reached during the last 20 years, if at all.
"On this tenuous basis they plan to remove almost all woodland vegetation and prevent it from regrowing.
"What was once a vibrant woodland area would become a, deliberately, bare hillside devoid of wildlife habitat."
When asked how many trees would be removed in total, a spokesman for the EA said "very few".
The spokesman added: "Mill Leese is a flood storage reservoir which protects up to 70 properties in Hythe from flooding.
"The reservoir embankment at Saltwood Castle must be maintained to a high standard and we have been advised to carry out this work by the Inspecting Engineer.
"This is not a matter of choice but a legal requirement in the interest of safety under the Reservoirs Act 1975.
"Although the Environment Agency is legally obliged to do this safety work, we are also looking to enhance the ecology of the area.
"We consulted a qualified specialist bat ecologist, to put together a ‘Vegetation Management Plan’.
"This Plan allows us to manage and maintain the embankment to both ensure it’s structural, public and operator safety whilst protecting the large healthy trees that provide an important travel corridor for bats.
"We will be starting the work in the coming weeks is to make sure that they are completed by October 31 to protect any creatures which may hibernate after that time."