RSPB and resi: a walk on the wild side

Barratt is working with the RSPB in Aylesbury to build wildlife-friendly homes.

At its 2,500-home Kingsbrook development in Aylesbury, Barratt is adding a radical new feature to every house. Nope, not solar panels, smart kitchens, retractable roofs or the latest bit of state-of-the-art tech. It is adding hedgehog highways: small holes in every garden fence allowing hedgehogs safe passage.

It is all part of an unlikely tie-up with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) that will also, needless to say, see the introduction of a number of initiatives to protect birds, including ‘swift bricks’ containing nesting boxes for swifts.

The aim is to turn Kingsbrook into a wildlife-friendly development that not only sits side by side with nature but actively encourages it, transforming mostly derelict farmland into a place rich in plants, pond life, insects and birds.

So why has Barratt decided to take on this mammoth task and how does it plan to build 2,500 homes alongside completely new ecosystems?

It’s intensely farmed land. There’s nothing astonishing and not what you’d call a rich habitat - Adrian Thomas, RSPB

The RSPB’s agenda is obvious - it wants to encourage more wildlife in the area - but Barratt’s motivation is not as immediately transparent until, that is, you consider the end user. Put simply, the idea of living in an area filled with wildlife is attractive to house buyers, says Jo Alden, technical director at Barratt Homes’ North Thames division.

“What we can say with confidence is that our purchasers love our ideas in this regard,” he says. “We even have some who have asked for more bird and bat boxes to be installed in their homes.”

Quality of life

It is all about quality of life, says RSPB project manager Adrian Thomas. “Almost every study out there says that if you have the chance to step out into nature every day your quality of life is better,” he says, adding that enlightened housebuilders understand the positive impact such initiatives have not just on their bottom line, but on their brand. 

“I don’t expect any developers out there to do this purely out of the goodness of their hearts, but while there is a financial and business driver there for them, I do believe the heart is coming into play here from Barratt as well,” he says.

Once Barratt and the RSPB had decided to work together at Kingsbrook, the first port of call for the RSPB was to find out what wildlife was on the site. It completed a full analysis of the area and what it found was, well, not very much.

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“It’s intensely farmed land,” says Thomas. “There’s the odd kestrel, some skylark pairs - nothing astonishing and not what you’d call a particularly rich habitat.”

The objective now is to increase the amount of wildlife. To that end, the developer will preserve what is already on the site - some fishing lakes, a few ancient trees and some hedgerows - as a baseline. It will then introduce a mixture of simple features, such as the hedgehog highways, and make some more complex, structural changes to the site.

Bring down the birds

It all starts with the bricks and mortar - quite literally. A swift brick will be introduced to one in four houses at the scheme, at relatively little expense: Barratt worked with the RSPB to design the product, bringing unit prices down from £40 to between £12 and £15.

“Swift numbers have almost halved in 20 years,” says Alden. “We were very fortunate that we were at the perfect stage in the development to incorporate the bricks as the first batch came from the production line.”

Houses will also have bat boxes and house martin nesting cups and the gardens will contain bug boxes and bird feeders. Fruit trees will also be introduced to roughly one in every four gardens.

Overall, 50% of the site will be green space, excluding gardens. The eastern part of the site will feature a nature reserve and there will also be orchards and allotments.

“The overall design has green corridors in a network running through each development area, so the wildlife within the more park-like areas can move through the built environments into gardens and out the other side,” says Thomas. “Careful plant choice is key. There’s a lot of native tree planting going on. There are wildflower meadow areas and play areas that are designed to be more natural.”

Swift numbers have almost halved in 20 years - Jo Alden, Barratt Homes

All of this should encourage a range of animals, from birds to hedgehogs to butterflies, on to the site. But it is the way Barratt is dealing with water that is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the scheme. Using a technique called sustainable urban drainage, it will create a new wetland environment teeming with life.

“Instead of pumping your water immediately, it’s about slowing [it] down,” Thomas says. “You have shallow swales running down the sides of the roads so that in heavy rain it holds the water temporarily, and then you have basins in which the water will then be held.”

Those basins - essentially large ponds - will be home to a variety of life. “The first flood retention pools went in last July,” says Thomas. “I was there this weekend and there were already five species of dragonfly using just the very first pool.”

He also expects birds to bathe and drink in the pools. Ducks and geese will find homes there and there will “probably be a pair of swans on some of them”, he says. “The wetland ecosystem is such a rich environment for all sorts of wildlife.”

This should attract wildlife into the area without Barratt having to introduce a single species. “There are enough butterflies, moths, birds and hedgehogs looking for homes,” says Thomas. “It’s what nature does and when it finds somewhere, it says ‘thank you very much, I’ll stay’. It’s not going to be rare wildlife, but we’d hope it will have a richness in common wildlife. So often, the countryside doesn’t have that any more.”

It is a vast package that Barratt and the RSPB are pulling together - more than Thomas has seen on any other housing development. But the fact that 2,500 homes are arriving at the site should not be forgotten.

Minimal disruption

Because construction will happen in stages across the site, the disruption to wildlife is expected to be localised and minimal, but once the homes are occupied, how will the wildlife be protected from the human inhabitants?

Just having wetlands creates a degree of separation, Thomas says, because people will not be wading into the ponds.

“There’s also a lot of tree planting - that gives a vertical escape route for a lot of wildlife,” he says, adding that British wildlife is fundamentally “resilient” and adapted to urban life. The blackbird, for example, was a shy woodland bird 50 years ago - now it’s the most common garden bird. “Both sides have to be somewhat adaptable,” Thomas explains.

Housing doesn’t have to reduce the wildlife collateral in the UK - Adrian Thomas, RSPB

The RSPB hopes that, in making Kingsbrook a success, it will spur not just Barratt to take these principles to other sites but other developers too. It might also change the public’s perception of housing development as automatically bad for wildlife.

“If it happened at Kingsbrook and nowhere else then it would not really have worked from our point of view,” Thomas says. “Housing doesn’t have to reduce the wildlife collateral in the UK. [I hope] Barratt does it on other developments. If that seeds something with other developers, then great.”

Who knows - if Kingsbrook proves a success, we could soon see hedgehog highways and swift bricks popping up in houses and gardens all over Britain.

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