First glimpse at stunning new Suffolk wildlife habitat created to compensate for Sizewell C
With picturesque coastline and vast areas of open land, wildlife in Suffolk is arguably already spoilt for choice. But now a little-known piece of land a stone's throw away from an iconic beach is fast becoming one of the county's newest wildlife hotspots - even if it is for controversial reasons.
Just three years ago, Aldhurst Farm was nothing more than low grade agricultural land that wouldn't have caused you to bat an eyelid.
But since 2016, the 67hectare site has undergone a dramatic transformation into a breathtaking heathland and wetland which is fast becoming a picturesque home to water voles, otters, eels, amphibians, reptiles and birds, as well as rare plants.
The reasons behind the transformation of Aldhurst Farm are, to some people, controversial.
It has been created by EDF Energy to compensate for the effect the planned multi-billion pound Sizewell C nuclear power plant could have on wildlife - in particular part of the Sizewell Marshes Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), which could be built over.
Many people are opposed to that development taking place - not least the RSPB, which manages nearby Minsmere and has warned Sizewell C could be “catastrophic for wildlife”.
In the recent third stage of consultation on the plant, the charity said: “We do not have confidence that Sizewell C can be developed without significant impacts on the designated wildlife sites of the Suffolk Coast, and Minsmere in particular.”
But to EDF project leaders, Aldhurst Farm is proof they care deeply about the surrounding environment and ensuring it still flourishes if the power station is built.
“We've created Aldhurst Farm to mitigate the potential impacts of the development,” said Katy McGuinness, environmental lead for Sizewell C.
“What we're looking to create here is something that has similarities to what you have at Minsmere.
“It demonstrates that we take seriously the impact on the environment.”
The RSPB has raised its “concern about the level of land take from Sizewell Marshes SSSI and the lack of justification for this”.
However EDF Energy says the overall size of Aldhurst Farm is “way over and above” what is needed to compensate for “some limited change” to Sizewell Marshes.
Transforming the land there has certainly been a massive undertaking for EDF workers.
In order to create 6hectares of reedbeds for water voles, otters, amphibians and reptiles, huge sections of land had to be dug up to open waterways and ditches previously hidden underground.
A fence has been put around one of the lagoons to prevent water voles colonising the reedbeds, so those displaced by Sizewell can be moved to Aldhurst Farm in the future.
The excavated soil, including peat, has then been spread across surrounding fields to help create the right conditions for other wildlife - some of which will form part of the food chain for birds at the site.
In total, the work has cost £5million - a small part of the overall Sizewell C project but still a significant figure, especially for a power station that doesn't even have planning permission.
Whether it will be enough to convince Sizewell C's doubters is another matter - 20,000 people have signed the RSPB's Love Minsmere petition in opposition to the development, with celebrities such as Chris Packham, Bill Turnbull and Bill Nighy joining the opponents.
However Miss McGuinness and her colleagues are proud of what they have created, saying: “The sort of species we'd like to see here have already started to colonise.
“It's connected to the existing SSSI, so a lot of the species there have already started to inhabit here.
“But one of the most exciting things recently is that they've spotted some marsh harriers.
“Over the last four or five years we've developed a lot of habitat mindful that we will need to translocate a number of species prior to doing any works on the main site.
“This is great example of some of the work we do. There is a great selection of bird life already - it's very rich.”
Aldhurst Farm is part of an overall landscape and ecology plan being developed by EDF Energy as part of its application to build Sizewell C.
Its team of ecologists continue to study the effects the power station would have on wildlife and says it is constantly consulting with organisations like the RSPB.
In the past few years, the firm has also created reptile habitats closer to the Sizewell site so that animals such as snakes can be moved there in the future.
Miss McGuinness said it has created a new foraging habitat for marsh harriers and that work is ongoing to create new fen meadow habitat, to replace a small area which might be affected by the development.
“Sizewell C takes its responsibilities to the environment and local communities seriously,” a spokesman for EDF Energy said.
“As responsible neighbours EDF Energy is committed to build on the good relationship Sizewell B has with RSPB Minsmere and to continue to work together on proposals for Sizewell C.
“We recognise the special nature of the reserve and its importance both locally and nationally.”
The RSPB has raised particular concerns about how wildlife could be disturbed by the construction of Sizewell C.
But if the nuclear power plant does get the go-ahead, EDF has promised it would take large steps to minimise noise and light disturbance.
In contrast to the large floodlights used when Sizewell B was built several decades ago, builders would use low-level LED lighting which is less intensive.
EDF's construction of a similar plant at Hinckley Point has also allowed it pick up small tips, such as not always using reversing sirens on vehicles.
Engineers would also carefully study what times of the day they work and exactly how much light they need, so they can get by with as little as possible.
About Sizewell C
EDF is proposing to build a new nuclear power station along the Suffok coast, alongside a current nuclear power station and one being decommissioned.
It would include two reactors (known as the UK EPR) and be capable of generating 3,260MW of low carbon electricity, enough to power around six million homes.
Planners also say it would bring a huge economic boost to the area, in particular providing high-skilled jobs for people in Suffolk.
However EDF would need to recruit many people from outside the area to cover the jobs needed - which again could bring an economic boost to the area.
Yet many are worried about whether the surrounding area has the infrastructure to cope with such a large growth in population, with fears about whether traffic could cope or whether there are enough homes for people to live in.
EDF held its third stage of consultation on Sizewell C earlier this year for people to express their views about the development.