When Petra Billings, landscapes project officer for Sussex Wildlife Trust, first heard of plans to drill for oil near Wisborough Green she was horrified.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said, as we walked through a golden wheat field looking for a location to erect a bat detection box.
“I think this is one of the most beautiful parts of Sussex and the whole South East,” continued the conservationist. “It is fantastic.
“There is ancient woodland, rare species of bats, there’s doormice, and badgers - it is a beautiful incredible area.
“To think that this energy company wants to come in here and industrialise this amazing gem of the English countryside is horrifying.”
Petra was referring to Celtique Energie’s bid to explore the Sussex Weald for commercially viable oil and gas deposits.
Earlier this year the firm was granted planning permission to drill at a site at Broadford Bridge near Adversane, and now its focus has shifted to Wisborough Green and Fernhurst.
With formal planning applications expected to be lodged with West Sussex County Council in early September, campaign groups in both locations are readying themselves for a fight.
Keep Kirdford and Wisborough Green spokesperson Stu Clark confirmed that with the backing of local land owners they have both the funding and the determination to counter Celtique Energie for the long haul, all the way to the Supreme Court if need be.
They will not be responding to a threat of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, directly, since Celtique’s exploratory drilling would not involve the controversial technique which uses high pressured water to fracture shale rock in order to release ‘unconventional’ deposits of gas or oil.
Instead, the aim is to use normal planning procedure to prove the site just off the Kirdford Road is an inappropriate location for the oil industry to operate from.
And, in addition to concerns regards infrastructure, much of their argument will revolve around environmental considerations.
“Two years ago we were bequeathed this wonderful piece of ancient woodland, immediately next to the proposed drilling site at Northup Copse,” said Petra, shaded by the spread of old oak trees and surrounded by hazel coppice.
“It is part of a larger woodland complex, and a site of nature conservation importance, really reflecting that it is an important local wildlife site.
“But more than that it is within a very short distance of The Mens nature reserve which is a site of European importance, a site of special scientific interest, and a special area for conservation at European level because of its rare populations of bats and doormice, and all sorts of other wildlife groups.”
It is the bats that Petra is particularly interested in, having spent the past two years managing a Sussex Wildlife Project working in partnership with local land owners and farmers to improve the habitat for them. She fears the proposed oil rig, which could operate 24 hours a day and be continually lit, would disrupt the flying mammals behaviour and could ‘undo years of good work in the West Weald Project area’.
“The Barberstelle bat is one of the UK’s rarest bats,” said Petra. “There are only a small handful of colonies and two of them happen to be in this immediate area.
“The ecology of this bat is particularly interesting because they roost in old oak woodlands but they feed in river flood planes eating all the midges and they literally commute from the roost to the feeding areas along flight lines, going back and forth every night.”
The wildlife enthusiast had a map showing the detected flight lines of the bats which commuted from The Mens nature reserve through SWT’s nature reserve abutting the proposed drilling site.
“If the bats can’t use the flight line because of the disturbance and light pollution of the oil rig and if they can’t get to their feeding grounds, how will the population suffer?” She questioned.
“I fear that the consequences can only be negative for the bat population, which is a really rare protected species, and we have been doing so much in this area to improve the habitat.”
In response to these concerns put to the company, a spokesperson for Celtique Energie said: “Celtique’s independent ecological consultants have undertaken a comprehensive range of surveys for a variety of species on and around the site.
“In addition, the layout of our site has been relocated further away from the woodland edge in response to feedback from the Sussex Wildlife Trust and other stakeholders to avoid any impacts on bats and other woodland animals.”
In relation to the energy firm’s bid to explore for oil and gas in West Sussex, the spokesperson added: “The focus of Celtique’s forthcoming planning applications at Wisborough Green and Fernhurst is to target conventional oil and gas reserves within the Kimmeridge limestone and the Great Oolite, and hydraulic fracturing is not being proposed as part of either application.
“However, in line with our commitment to open and transparent communication with the public, we have clearly stated that we would also take data on shale rock formations encountered in each well to look at the potential in the Kimmeridge shale and the Liassic shale.
“Until such time as we undertake exploratory drilling to gather data, we cannot verify whether commercially viable levels of hydrocarbons are present in these multiple objectives.”
What do you think of oil exploration in West Sussex? Leave a comment below, or email firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information about the Keep Kirdford and Wisborough Green campaign visit no-drilling.co.uk
By Theo Cronin