Red Squirrels of Prehen Woods: Under imminent threat from planners and developers?

During the 2005 Slugger live coverage of the Westminster elections, I overheard a fairly senior Sinn Fein representative being candid enough to admit that there were no votes in the Environment. That’s not to pick on that particular party any more than any of the others.

It’s a fact of life in Northern Irish electoral politics, and I suspect that Sinn Fein is not the worst offender. People need homes to live in and places to work. But one of most contentious issues has been the law concerning planning.

In Tuesday’s Derry Journal, Eammon McCann highlights a small campaign and its fight with the planners to save a small area of ancient woodland in Prehen (‘rare enough in Ireland’, according to the Department of the Environment). It’s also host to a small colony of Red Squirrels in an area which is slowly being colonised by Greys.

In Ireland the first Greys where released only in 1911 so that their migration is still limited and there are (unlike the south of England where Red Squirrels are almost entirely confined to offshore islands) still good numbers and a decent geographical spread. But there are already considerable efforts going into translocation programmes, ie taking a small number of donor Reds and establishing them in broadleafed woodlands where they are likely to thrive.

All of this and more has been made clear to the planning service, who nonetheless altered the Derry Area Plan and opened up a small but strategically dangerous (from the point of view of the ancient habitat of Prehen Wood) area of Green Belt for “a very small and exclusive development of magnificent detached family homes”.

What’s remarkable is not simply that the purpose of the development is to place housing, as it says in the brochure in an area surrounded by the ancient woodland, but that over a three year period the planning service refused to explain to the local campaign group just why they had taken this extraordinary step.

Even taking it to the Minister of the time, Arlene Foster, did not work. George McLaughlan’s account of that meeting is that it included members of the planning service who continued to block any further answers to his campaign’s questions about the nature and reasoning behind the decision.

According to McCann the new Minister for the Environment, Alex Attwood, is taking a fresh look at the files. But it’s pretty hard to see why a local planning service (which oversight, rather than control from Derry City Council) would take risks with a habitat for a native Irish species, which, whilst not endangered as such, is nonetheless clearly under threat.

In the meantime, it seems that after all these years of tooing and very little froing, the preparations are now being made to go ahead and start work on the four “magnificent detached family homes” and the road connecting them to the outside world.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty