The Friends of Betteshanger intend to provide a voice for the wildlife at Betteshanger Country Park in the face of developments that threaten both habitats and wildlife survival. We deplore this attack on nature at a time when wildlife is seeing unprecedented declines everywhere.
The pithead area of the mine, another important wildlife refuge, and a sister site, is to become a housing estate. It has been largely rewilding for the past 33 years. Planning permission was granted by Dover District Council last year, despite huge opposition, for over 200 houses. Wildlife of all kinds, including turtle doves and the rare protected plant grass-poly will pay the price (see planning application 20/00419).
Now it is happening all over again. This time at the country park. Quinn Estates has plans to build a luxury hotel there, with spa and gym and a full-size surfing facility, the Seahive, that will allow up to 90 people at a time to surf on a huge lagoon. It will take up 10 hectares of the park (see planning applications 22/01152 and 22/01158, Dover District Council).
Much is being made of the benefits to tourism and the local economy of the proposed developments. But once again it is obvious that wildlife will be paying the price. Nature, as we all know, is in deep trouble everywhere. Habitats are being degraded and species lost at a rate never seen before. East Kent is not immune. The Betteshanger proposals are a prime example of why we are losing our wildlife at such an unprecedented rate and why the government’s target of halting wildlife declines by 2030 is a distant dream.
The Seahive proposal (planning application 22/01158)
The proposed location for the Seahive is in an area of the park that was designated as a habitat exclusion zone when the park was first set up. Maps from that time show that the area was for the benefit of plants, birds and invertebrates. Indeed since that time it has remained a relatively undisturbed part of the park with no cycling or walking tracks. An S106 agreement attached to the original planning application (02/00905) stated that Dover District Council and the owner of the park would designate a “local nature reserve” at the park. Even though this was a legal obligation, it was never implemented. Dover District Council is unable to explain why. We believe that the habitat exclusion zone would have been part of that nature reserve. This is the area of the park where the developer now wants to build the Seahive.
Skylarks nest where Quinn Estates want to build the Seahive. Their numbers have dropped by 75 per cent since the 1970s and they are still declining. Open-ground nesting habitat would be removed under the proposals.
The Seahive site also supports the second largest colony of lizard orchids in the whole country, second only to the famous population at the Sandwich Bay national nature reserve. Under the proposals, about 800 lizard orchids would be dug up. They are a schedule-eight plant protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act. Many more in the vicinity are likely to be destroyed in the building process. “Mitigation” is proposed, which would involve planting the orchids elsewhere in the park — but this risks failure and is likely to cause damage to good habitat elsewhere in the park.
Locals who take an interest in the natural world see the lizard orchids as a jewel in the crown of Dover district’s wildlife assets, to be celebrated as a precious part of everyone’s natural heritage. The developer takes a different view.
Then there is the “open mosaic” habitat that supports the skylarks, the lizard orchids and rare invertebrates. This is a priority habitat under the Kent Biodiversity Strategy, which Dover District Council supports. It is scarce in the district. Extensive areas of it would be removed under the proposals. The intention is to recreate it elsewhere in the park. Where are the examples that show this can be done and done successfully?
Surveys have shown that the open mosaic habitat in this area of the park is of county importance for invertebrates: 157 species of invertebrates have been recorded in 2020-2021, 13 of which have an official conservation designation. Most notable are a centipede (Lithobius lapidicola) and the southern crablet (Ozyptila claveata). Species such as this may disappear altogether with the removal of the habitat.
Then there are the two nationally rare moths that have been recorded. Over 64 individual bright wave moths (Idaea ochrata) were recorded in a 30-minute count in 2014 in an area of grassland within the proposed development area. The fiery clearwing (Pyropteron chrysidiformis) was found in 2011,and 2015 in a site threatened with “enhancement” under the proposals.
And then there are the turtle doves, under threat for a second time on the Betteshanger sites. They are the UK’s fastest-declining birds. A nationwide survey of turtle doves last year has shown that whereas in the 1970s there were 125,000 pairs, that number has now dropped to 2,100 pairs, a decline of 98 per cent.
Despite this, Dover District Council gave permission for turtle dove territory to be removed under planning application 20/00419. To mitigate that effect, ecologists selected areas of the country park that would be suitable for turtle dove habitat providing opportunities for foraging and giving supplementary food. We were told in the mitigation strategy that these areas were in relatively undisturbed areas of the park, essential if the birds were going to thrive. Now we see that the needs of the doves have been ignored and both the proposed hotel and the wave lagoon are situated immediately adjacent to the turtle dove special areas. There is now a question mark over the whole mitigation strategy, and the likelihood of maintaining numbers of turtle doves at the park seems remote. The likelihood of increasing them seems impossible.
The hotel (planning application 22/01152)
The proposed site for the hotel is adjacent to the park’s current car park. A new access road would be built through one of the best bird nesting areas of the whole park. Bird surveys carried out for the developer show the densest concentration of breeding birds lies along this edge of the park. This, together with its high importance for bats, makes it a really valuable green corridor and one that should be left intact. The site may also support water voles, a species that has undergone one of the most serious declines of any mammal in the UK.
As with the Seahive, turtle doves will be impacted by the hotel. Another of the special mitigation areas set up to try and maintain the population — and a condition of planning application 20/00419 — lies adjacent to the hotel. This is also where a supplementary feeding station for the doves will be situated. If permission is granted for the hotel, this will become an area of the park with high levels of noise, lights and human activity, entirely unsuited to a shy and wary bird such as the turtle dove. It will also have a serious impact on the bat population. According to Kent & Medway Biological Records Centre data, the Betteshanger area supports nine of the UK’s 16 bat species. This makes it an exceptional area for bats.
Moreover, the hotel would be located within the core foraging area for turtle doves recorded in the area. Turtle doves prefer to feed and drink within a 300-metre radius of their nest site. If the developer was serious about maintaining and increasing the turtle dove population at the park, they would not have chosen this location for the hotel. The plans also involve the removal of ponds that are likely to be a drinking source for the local turtle doves and a hunting opportunity for bats.
Betteshanger Country Park is within one of the four turtle dove-friendly zones designated by the RSPB in the Dover district. The aim of Operation Turtle Dove is to reverse the declines in this most threatened of species.
Turtle doves are also a target species under the Kent Biodiversity Strategy, which Dover District Council supports. In their green and blue infrastructure strategy from May 2022, one of the council’s priorities is to “protect and seek to increase populations of Kent Biodiversity Strategy species which are notable within the Dover district”.
It remains to be seen whether this “priority” will translate into action by the council to properly protect turtle doves at the country park, or whether economic opportunities will take precedence.
Our view is that, given the biodiversity value of Betteshanger Country Park, the proposals to build a luxury hotel and surfing facility are tantamount to ecological vandalism and we look to Dover District Council to fulfil its statutory duty to conserve biodiversity and refuse permission.
If you have read to the end of this, thank you for staying the course. If you feel you would like to help, then thank you so much for that, too. You are welcome to join our campaigning group: find Friends of Betteshanger on Facebook.
Most importantly, please object to the planning application. Here are the details for making an objection:
Here is a link to the Dover District Council planning page for the Seahive. Click on “make a comment” to submit your objection.
And here is a link to the planning page for the hotel. Click on “make a comment” to submit your objection.
Sue Sullivan, Friends of Betteshanger
Sue Sullivan is part of the campaign group the Friends of Betteshanger, which was set up to be a voice for wildlife on the Betteshanger sites. She is a retired teacher, has a lifelong interest in ecology and the natural world and has been involved in environmental campaigning for many years.
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