Protestors’ guerrilla tactics hinder HS2

| 7th July 2020
HS2 protestor
Activists have taken to the trees to halt HS2 construction that threatens to fell tracts of north-London nature reserve.

But in the end the choice is simple: take to the trees and risk some damage to the site, or leave and witness HS2 destroy some of Britain’s last ancient woodlands.

Five stories up, in the canopy of a towering willow on the banks of the river Colne in Buckinghamshire, Larch is explaining how to build a tree-house.  

It’s precarious. But when the bailiffs come, this wooden platform will become these protestors’ home – and the tree’s last defence against the chainsaws. Last time, Dr Larch Maxey stayed in his tree for nine days: “They restricted our food and water, so we were dehydrated, hungry, cold… so it was tough, physically – but emotionally? It was just so empowering.”

The logic is simple: you can’t cut down a tree if there are people in it. So here in Denham Park bordering northwest London, protestors have rigged nets, strung hammocks and built platforms to protect this ancient woodland from demolition by HS2 ltd – the government-backed company in charge of build High Speed Rail 2.

Aerial chess

People have come from all over the country to try and stop the destruction. Terra is from Yorkshire: “I’ve travelled 300 miles to be here – given up so much.” Her silver jewellery jingles as she gestures, “but it’s worth it to try to stop this.” 

HS2 ltd own this land, thanks to the High Speed Rail Act of 2017, so they have the legal right evict people from it in order to carry out their work (in this case building a temporary road). But how do you evict someone 50 feet up in the air, who has locked themselves on to a tree? 

Slowly, is the answer. Specialized climbing bailiffs must first scale the tree and make it past the treehouse’s defences. Then they have to deal with the ‘lock-on’ – an improvised device that attaches a protester to a tree, to the ground, or to each other, for which the bailiffs have no key. So they cut them off – but that is no easy task.

Brett – one of the HS2 supervisors– has seen aerosol cans and chicken wire set into the concrete of lock-ons to impede cutting. “They’re very rehearsed at what they do,” he says of the protestors.

All this causes delay – and that’s the point. The activists know that they won’t be able to save every tree. “[We] have a role just to hold [the project] back,” Larch says, “until reality and the public opinion can kick in.” He thinks that by strategically delaying the work, and rallying a movement to fight it, they have a chance to keep more of Britain’s precious woods from harm  by the time the project is inevitably abandoned. “As I see it,” he says, “this is a game of chess.” 

But if it’s a game, HS2 are becoming an increasingly aggressive opponent. They recently contracted the National Eviction Team (NET) – a private company who’s masked, black-suited guards specialize in evicting protestors. According to Swan, a veteran activist, they have a reputation for brutality: “They’re like these thugs that come in and do this thing without safety.” One of the bailiffs, Steve, is known for his violence. “He partly strangled [Larch’s] son in a tree… he went four seconds unconscious. It was really traumatic.” 

Lashing out

Both Swan and Larch both believe in peaceful, non-violent disruption, but Swan says that this kind of violence takes its toll. “It’s very hard to remain calm and pragmatic towards them, not antagonistic, because there is tension and anger built up there – an us and them thing.” And sometimes emotions boil over.

One ugly scene erupted when a 15-year old protestor tried to climb the barrier into the HS2 worksite. The NET guards shove her back, so the protestors rush to her defence. A younger activist, hurt in the fracas, squares up to a guard through the fence bars: “Just a child-killer innit! Seen too much shit in the war bruv? Is it coming back to ya?”

Many of the NET guards have military backgrounds. The guard mutters something back through the railings. As I take notes, the guard turns to me and rasps: “You little prick.”

The protestors’ anger is driven by grief at the loss of the woods. But much of the guard’s anger may stem from fear. Brett says they are walking a tightrope, “people will get marched off site for simple misdemeanours… if a protestor can spot something not being done right, there’s an escalation.”

The workers are afraid to lose their jobs. Brett adds: “That’s why people don’t talk to people like yourself.” 

Fraternizing

But outside evictions, flare-ups are uncommon. Guards and protestors spend most of their days as neighbours, and that can encourage friendliness. Mortdecai, an impish Hungarian with a military upbringing, uses this to attack the project in a different way. 

“I am the fraternizer!” he exclaims, “if you do not see me as a bloody uncooperative crusty, but a sane, disciplined man like you, you hear my argument day by day.” Fraternization, he maintains, destroys the enemy’s discipline. Then they can be reasoned with.

So does the protestors’ message get through? Mark Kier, one of the longest-serving activists, thinks so. He says that some workers have quit the project after speaking to the protestors – and that HS2 have begun regularly moving contractors between camps, possibly to stop this from happening.

HS2 supervisor Brett is certainly alive to the protestors’ view: “I live in my environment, my grandchildren will grow in the environment – none of us sit here and are not free-thinking people. We can give our opinions on the project, a lot of people here might have opinions on the project, but that is secondary to the work they have to do.”  

When I ask the other workmen what they think of the destruction of the forest, one mumbles, “yeah, it’s sad”, before scuttling away – yet for the most part, they seem unphased, bantering among each other as they prepare to pull down another tree. 

Legal battles

The protests are, however, getting under the skin of HS2’s management. HS2’s lawyers have started seeking injunctions on large areas of land to deter activists from interfering with their worksites. Tom Roscoe, a lawyer for HS2, speaks as though HS2 were under siege: “They are relentless,” he says of the protestors. 

The courts have granted HS2’s injunction requests. Activists trespassing on this newly injuncted land now risk being sent to jail, instead of being simply removed. But Paul Powlesland, a barrister who represents a number of activists against HS2, says that putting people in prison may backfire: “They’re going to create martyrs. Because the whole thing does kind of stink when you look at it objectively.”

Powlesland says the court is on a slippery slope: “The scariness of contempt of court may lose its power if over-applied… people get to a stage where they’re like, ‘actually, it’s so unfair, I don’t care! Do what you will with me with your injunctions.’” When faced with putting many otherwise law-abiding citizens in prison, Paul thinks the court may baulk.

But the new injunctions could cripple the protestors’ delay tactics. If too many activists are sent to prison, without inspiring more to join their cause, then there won’t be enough people to hold the treetops against the contractor’s chainsaws. But Larch is bullish: “The injunction is a tool of fear,” he says, “fear is the greatest tool they’ve got.” He isn’t afraid to go to prison – in fact he agrees with Paul: putting lots of protestors behind bars will rally people against the HS2 project. 

Whatever happens, Larch will continue to fight. “Are thousands of people’s kids still dying because of climate change? Are two hundred species still dying every day? Are HS2 still continuing? Yes, yes, yes. We have to carry on.”

Collateral damage

Whoever comes out on top, there will definitely be one loser: the land. Denham park is home to 17 out of the UK’s 18 bat species, as well as birds, eels and trees many hundreds of years old. These will all suffer.

HS2 have an ecologist on site, tasked with minimizing damage to wildlife – but when I asked to speak with them about what precautions are taken, they refused (in fact they wouldn’t even identify themselves).

On other sites, HS2 have left broken bird’s nests and smashed eggs in their wake. Cutting down trees containing bird’s nests is a wildlife crime – but so far the police have looked the other way.

And the protestors aren’t blameless. Since the camp next to Denham woods expanded, a local angler (who did not want to be named) said that the number of insect larvae in the river have plummeted – possibly because of sewage run-off after the heavy rains, or washing up liquid used in the camp. 

The protestors are alive to this problem. They try to live sustainably (showers are at a premium) and accept that the situation is not ideal. But in the end the choice is simple: take to the trees and risk some damage to the site, or leave and witness HS2 destroy some of Britain’s last ancient woodlands.

This Author

Ali Jennings is a journalist and science communicator working through video, audio and  writing, and focussing on science and environmental issues. Find him on twitter @aliheartscience.

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