Habitat of rare bumblebees under threat from plan to build 120,000 new homes

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The Independent Online

Britain's threatened bumblebees have some of their biggest strongholds on the derelict brownfield sites of the Thames estuary east of London - but these may vanish when the area is redeveloped, a new book says.

It's not just wildflower meadows or gardens that matter for bumblebee conservation. The old quarries, disused railway lines, gravel pits, former wharves, ex-industrial land and patches of waste ground of the Thames Gateway are home to an "astonishing assemblage" of insect species, many of them rare, according to the study, by one of Britain's leading bumblebee experts, Professor Ted Benton.

The reason: the grassland and scrub in these places has never been sprayed with pesticides or fertilisers, or been subjected to the intensive farming which has caused bumblebees to disappear from much of the countryside.

Three of the 25 bumblebee species traditionally found in Britain have gone extinct and several more are in danger - so The Independent is backing the new pressure group set up to protect and save them, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

The forthcoming redevelopment of Thames Gateway, seen as environmentally friendly because building will be on brownfield rather than greenfield sites, is another shadow over the future of Britain's favourite insects after butterflies.

Under the Sustainable Communities Plan promoted by the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, it is one of four priority target regions for housing growth in the South over the next 15 to 30 years.

Many of its brownfield sites are likely to disappear as 120,000 new homes are built on both banks of the river. Areas such as Stratford, Barking and Thurrock in Essex, and Greenwich, Woolwich and North Kent Thameside, between Dartford and Gravesend, on the Kentish bank, are already marked down for major residential and retail redevelopment. Unless safeguards can be put in place this is likely to do away with some of the best habitat for bumblebees and other insects, Professor Benton warns.

Canvey Island, the industrialised settlement on the Essex side of the river, is home to colonies of two of our rarest bumblebees, the shrill carder bee (Bombus sylvarum) and the large carder bee (Bombus humilis) on land next to an old oil refinery. The former is only known from four sites in all of Britain.

Through the intervention of English Nature, the Government's conservation agency, the Canvey Island bee sites have been saved from supermarket redevelopment, but many others are at risk, Professor Benton warns. "We need to value and protect urban nature, especially because so much of our countryside has been rendered sterile by industrialised agriculture," he says.

Professor Benton sounds the alarm about vanishing brownfield bee havens at the end of his monumental study, entitled Bumblebees, which has just been published as part of a long-running (and much-collected) series of weighty wildlife books, the Collins New Naturalists.

'Independent' book offer

Independent readers can obtain a 15 per cent discount on the cover price of Collins New Naturalist Bumblebees by Ted Benton - which is regarded as the most authoritative work on British bumblebees ever published - while directly helping the new Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BBCT). The £45 hardback is available for £38.25, while the £25 paperback is available for £21.25, both with free postage and packing on all UK orders. For every copy sold through The Independent, the BBCT will also receive 15 per cent of the cover price. To take advantage of this offer, please call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897 or visit our online bookshop at www.independentbooks direct.co.uk