Horrid ground-weaver saved – Thanks mainly to Buglife, Plymouth City Council and you!

Friday 19th June 2015

In a momentous decision an unprotected wildlife site, home to a globally endangered spider, has been saved from destruction. The failure of the state to adequately protect endangered wildlife meant this was a close call, but resolute action by Buglife, Plymouth City Council and thousands of concerned individuals resulted in the Planning Inspector rejecting a proposal to turn the habitat into houses. The case demonstrates the moral responsibility that people feel towards preserving life on earth, however small and insignificant.

A former quarry reclaimed by nature, Radford Quarry is a designated as a County Wildlife Site – Devon Biodiversity Records Centre describes the site as ‘a good example of succession towards species-rich calcareous grassland, artificial habitats, disused quarries with good examples of succession from bare ground to wildlife rich grassland’.

Radford Quarry supports a number of threatened and UK Biodiversity Action Plan listed butterflies, including the Small Blue, Brown Argus, Small Heath and Dingy Skipper – an impressive list for a small urban site. The site also supports the Red Data Book listed spider the Tree H-weaver (Episinus maculipes) and the nationally scarce White-striped centipede (Henia vesuviana). The site also features a Lesser horseshoe bat roost, and is a key part of Plymouth’s Biodiversity Network.

Radford Quarry, Plymouth © R. Goddard

Whilst clearly being of county importance Radford Quarry is also home to the Horrid ground-weaver spider (Nothophantes horridus). A globally critically endangered species, the Horrid ground-weaver has only ever been recorded at three sites on Earth – all of which are in the Plymouth area. One of these sites was developed into an industrial park in the late 1990s, leaving just Radford Quarry and one other site left. The significance of the site for one of the world’s rarest spiders means that protecting Radford Quarry is of global importance for biodiversity.

In 2014 Buglife, Devon Wildlife Trust, the RSPB and local community groups objected to a development application to build 57 houses all over Radford Quarry. Buglife’s original objection was for three reasons: a development at Radford Quarry would destroy a County Wildlife Site, the applicant had not carried out an invertebrate survey, and the home of the Horrid ground-weaver spider is of global importance.

Plymouth City Council, the planning authority, refused the planning application on the grounds that it would cause damage to biodiversity, and for other matters such as transport. The developer appealed the Plymouth City Council’s decision, who to their credit decided to defend their decision.

Buglife mobilised considerable support, we set up an online petition that in a week gathered almost 10,000 signatures. Petitioners were asked why they had signed up and the answers they gave stemmed from deep moral conviction. Here are some examples:-

Helen s.

“Not a panda but just as important”

Markus W.

“The species is highly endemic, i.e. once it is gone from this site it may be gone for good. Besides, anything with a name like that (‘Horrid Ground Weaver’) deserves our protection!”

richard h.

“The loss of even one species brings all species closer to extinction”

Georgina D.

“Who knows how long this little spider has been on the planet and evolved. Leave it be”

Christopher R.

“Because the spider is innocent, it has done nothing apart from just trying to live its life”

Lindsay P.

“Since when did human housing become more important than an entire species???”

Allan A.

“Can’t believe this is in my home town. Spiders are great. Please City Council stick to your guns.”

Frances D.

“How can we expect other nations to safeguard [the tiger, orang-utan et al] when we destroy our own?”

The result of the appeal was announced last week – the planning inspector upheld Plymouth City Council’s decision, giving biodiversity as the primary reason. Horrid ground-weaver (Nothophantes horridus) © Fergus McBurney

It can be surprisingly difficult for a planning authority to turn down a planning application on biodiversity grounds when there is no clear arguments based on it being a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) or home to a Wildlife and Countryside Act protected species. It is also rare that the planning authority is prepared to defend such a decision – the process requires substantial financial and manpower resources. It is of course part of the inherent imbalance in the planning process that developers can keep applying and appealing until the local authority runs out of resources to fight, while woefully the environment has no right of appeal.

There has been an important public debate about the issue, one which the endangered species won hands down. Andrew Whitehouse, our South West Manager was interviewed on Radio 4’s World Tonight on 11 June 2015 alongside Mark Littlewood, Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs.

In a vibrant discussion about the relative priority of saving endangered species versus houses, Andrew set the scene saying that “It is morally wrong to knowingly cause the extinction of a species no matter how small it is.”  Mark Littlewood played down the significance of the quarry supporting 50% of the known global population claiming that “even by building this it wouldn’t wipe out this particular species” and asking “how quickly could this spider be rescued and we allow this development to go ahead”. Andrew pointed out that there were already 7,000 houses being built in the Plymouth area. Eventually Mark Littlewood partially conceded that “This is very peculiar issue, this is an incredibly rare spider so I am not aware of any other planning applications that have been held up because there is a concerns that a very small, rarely heard of spider is going to be rendered extinct”.

The Pope has had a lot to say on the moral case for protecting endangered species, however apparently insignificant, in his encyclical this week. He points out that:-

“It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost for ever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right.”

“It may well disturb us to learn of the extinction of mammals or birds, since they are more visible. But the good functioning of ecosystems also requires fungi, algae, worms, insects, reptiles and an innumerable variety of microorganisms. Some less numerous species, although generally unseen, nonetheless play a critical role in maintaining the equilibrium of a particular place.”

“In assessing the environmental impact of any project, concern is usually shown for its effects on soil, water and air, yet few careful studies are made of its impact on biodiversity, as if the loss of species or animals and plant groups were of little importance.”

Plymouth City Council deserves much kudos for taking the morally right decision and sticking by it.  So thank you, to Plymouth City Council and the British public for showing such a strong moral commitment to preventing an extinction. We also thank our members and supporters for providing us with funds to stand up on behalf of this little spider and better understand its ecology and habitat.

There is still more work to do, it is now time that the British Government did more to protect our endangered species. We have asked the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) to recommend that the Horrid ground-weaver should be added to the Wildlife and Countryside Act for habitat protection, and we also believe that both the remaining homes of the spider, one of our few species listed by the International Union for Nature Conservation as being Globally Critically Endangered, should become SSSIs.

The Horrid ground-weaver is by no means our only endangered species threatened with extinction from development and we are optimistic that the JNCC will take steps to ensure that more species are properly protected in the near future.

Please do consider Become a Member as we continue to ensure that even little animals have space to survive.

This blog was written with Andrew Whitehouse.