Give the devil his due

21 August 2017

Tunnelling unnerves a lot of people. Whether it’s something about the thought of a large hole being dug beneath the foundations of their property, the disruption of a few years of construction work, or the general idea of infrastructure being driven through a pleasant environment, it worries people. Especially environmental pressure groups.

Tunnellers should, then, welcome as a victory the news from the UK’s National Trust that as a result of a major road tunnel project, a site has become one of the top wildlife havens in this part of the country.

It is now six years since the Hindhead Tunnel opened in the south east of England. The 6.5km twin tunnel facilitated the undergrounding of the A3, which at the time separated ‘the Devil’s Punch Bowl’ and Hindhead Common. But with these historic habitats reconnected, the project has, according to a body of scientists called Natural England, been declared as having met all of its nature conservation objectives.

Significantly, at 300m above sea level, this location is one of the highest places in low-lying southern England, bringing together an unusual combination of flora and fauna, and is therefore a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The mosaic of habitats found on site include upland and lowland heath, bog, streams, ancient woodland, and free draining sandy soil.

Matt Cusack, lead ranger said: “The removal of the A3 in July 2011 was a major milestone, enabling us to thin trees and transform the site into a swathe of heathland.”

For interested readers, significant naturalistic coups include the arrival of the scarce heath tiger beetle, the Dartford warbler, the woodlark and the nightjar, as well as conditions favourable for the return of the silver studded blue butterfly. New paths have been created by the rangers, and visitor numbers are up to 700,000 per year.

Henry Penner, senior environmental advisor with Highways England said: “The tunnel is a ground breaking piece of engineering and shows how, by working together, we can deliver a road network fit for the 21st century in a way that not only protects but enhances the environment.

“The old A3 around the Devil’s Punch Bowl was filled in using sandstone excavated from the tunnel and a mix of seeds to match the surrounding environment. I am delighted that six years on it has been recognised for playing its part in the wildlife success of the Devil’s Punch Bowl SSSI, and recognise the excellent work that Natural England and the National Trust have done to protect and enhance this special place for the country.”