One of London's top sites for bats is under threat from plans to turn it into a refuse tip.

Beddington Farmlands is well known for a prevalence of several species, including the rare serotine bat. It is also regarded as an important site for birds, sheltering one of the largest colonies of tree sparrows in Britain.

They are attracted by the plentiful supply of insects feeding on the sewage sludge beds covering the site, but nature enthusiasts and Sutton borough council fear this rich diversity could vanish if owner Thames Water wins its fight to dig a landfill site.

In March, Sutton, regarded as London's greenest borough, refused planning permission to develop the land partly because of the threat it thought the plan would pose to the natural environment.

Thames Water has appealed, but has dropped its idea to dump special wastes, including asbestos.

A spokesman said the local community would benefit because the plan would save council tax-payers millions of pounds by reducing the costs of transporting waste to other sites in Britain. It would later provide a landscaped park and nature conservation area for public enjoyment.

The operation would be undertaken by Thames Waste Management, a subsidiary, and use 227 acres next to the sewage works.

Those opposed to the scheme are vowing to fight on and Sutton is preparing its brief for a public inquiry which will decide the common's future. A date for the hearing has not yet been set, but it is believed it will be held locally.

Paul Burstow, council environmental services committee chairman, said it was crucial to save the area from the threat of dumping.

'Thames Water has not proved the need for landfill tipping. No one can give a cast-iron guarantee that there will be no problems. A site like this could be giving future generations problems long after those of us who took the decision are dead.

'We're fighting this appeal on environmental grounds. A dump like this would be a disaster in terms of noise, traffic, air and water pollution, not to mention the loss of wildlife.'

Clive Herbert of the London Bat Group, who is carrying out a survey of the site, said despite bat roosts in nearby buildings being protected by law, the creatures' insect supply might suffer.

'It's no good protecting your house if there's no food in the fridge,' he said.

'Bats are already threatened and their numbers are declining, especially in London. Some priority and resource does need to be given to threatened mammals and bats are certainly in that category.'

The serotine, which for-ages on the site, is described as a stoutly built bat more familiar to Europe, Asia and north and west Africa, the south-east of England marking its most northerly limits.

Objectors to the Beddington plan also include the London Wildlife Trust, which feels the replacement landscape proposed by Thames Water would fail to support wildlife, and English Nature, which said the proposed 16m-high mounds would drive away wading birds that need to spot approaching predators.

But, according to the environmental consultancy that has carried out surveys on the site for Thames Water and drawn up a conservation plan, the future wildlife site on top of the landfill would be equal to, if not better than, the existing reserve.

Alastair Shotliff, project manager for Thames Waste Management, added that there had been a 'deliberate scaremongering campaign' over the waste landfill and that the reasons for the council's refusal were either factually flawed or unjustified.

Beddington Farmlands sewage treatment works was built in 1860 and expanded during the Twenties. The site consists of 140 hectares of standing water, sludge, scattered trees and rough vegetation which floods periodically, creating an ideal habitat for birds and bats.

CUDDLY CREATURES THAT ARE FACING EXTINCTION

The decline in the numbers of bats both in London and across Britain has prompted the Bat Conservation Trust (motto: Bats Need Friends) to set up a recovery plan to save threatened species.

Three years ago the mouse-eared bat became extinct, reducing the number of species in Britain to 14.

The Trust's Claire Frankland said people were still reluctant to appreciate bats, treating them with suspicion and even fear.

'We think of doormice as being really cuddly and bats are not much different.

'They are quite attractive - little cuddly creatures with little furry bodies.

'They are mammals just like us, and are quite sociable creatures that eat a lot of insects which are pests to us.'

FACTS OF FLIGHT . . .

There are nearly 1,000 species in the world.

14 species breed in Britain - one-third of our land mammal species.

London has bats in every borough - major sites are Hampstead Heath, Chiswick House, Wanstead Flats in Newham, Oxleas Wood and Beddington Farmlands.

Bats have been on earth for more than 50 million years and are the only mammal capable of flight. They can live for up to 30 years.

All species are nocturnal and hibernate during the winter, and usually have only one offspring.

Females gather in creches to give birth and rear their young.

Bats forage at sunset and sunrise, using their inbuilt 'radar to locate insects on the wing.

Britain's largest species is the noctule - it weighs as much as three pounds 1 coins and has a wingspan of 35cm.

Britain's smallest, and most common, species is the pipistrelle, which weighs less than a 2p coin and fits neatly into a matchbox.

Some bats live as far north as the Arctic Circle.

(Photographs omitted)

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