Questions raised over stone curlew buffer zone

A piece of legislation has put the spotlight on a 3,000-acre site of special scientific interest (SSSI), between Bury St Edmunds and Swaffham, home to colonies of stone curlew.

Scientific evidence suggests the birds are significantly affected by their proximity to buildings and roads, resulting in a 1,500m buffer zone established around the site.

But the constant need for growth – more homes and enterprise – has raised questions about how a piece of legislation, the European Habitats Directive, which aims to protect habitats and species of European interest, is interpreted.

Robert Childerhouse of Childerhouse Farms, near Weeting, said: 'The buffer zone engulfs the entire village of Weeting which means it is now sterilised in so far as any future growth or re-development is concerned.

'For the 200 people on the council's housing list in Weeting this is not good news as it means their housing need is not going to be addressed, leaving Thetford as the only material alternative housing location to move to.'

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The director of Thetford's Shadwell Estate, Chris Kennard, said planning was still restricted despite numbers of stone curlew increasing.

'We treasure our role as custodians of a bio-diverse countryside. But there is a need for a level playing field so good practice by landowners and farmers is acknowledged and rewarded,' he said.

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'It is an irony that through the creation of the 1,500m buffer, the data the RSPB has collected has been used to produce a seemingly unchangeable report for Natural England that prohibits development – in one case a single stud-worker's cottage.'

The main aim of the directive is to promote biodiversity by requiring countries to maintain or restore natural habitats and wild species. Countries are required to take account of economic, social and cultural requirements as well as regional and local characteristics.

The Defra minister for natural environment and fisheries, Richard Benyon, has just met South West Norfolk MP Elizabeth Truss and local businesses and farms to seek a solution to development difficulties while maintaining the integrity of the directive.

Officials from Natural England believe an idea mooted at the meeting that the site be more geographically specific would be at odds with the scientific evidence.

Senior adviser for land use function at Natural England, Chris Gibson, said: 'On our current understanding, to deliver local changes to the buffer zone would be difficult because it needs to be supported by evidence.

'If changes were made and not supported there is a risk it could be challenged and the government could find itself in front of the European court. The current situation is that we have a strong evidence base that stone curlew breeding is affected by the proximity of buildings and roads.'

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