The butterfly and the Derby

I've always thought that Epsom Downs was an area of public common land, with open access to the whole area with the exception of the racecourse. How wrong can you be?

Although there are several public footpaths and bridleways across the Downs, the whole area actually belongs to Epsom Racecourse. They have caused quite a stir with their plans to flatten land at Tattenham Corner by using fill material from the Downs. The objective is not to change the nature of the racecourse, but to save money when they put up temporary marquees for the Derby meeting each year.

The proposal to extract material from three sites close to the racecourse was approved by the Epsom and Walton Downs Conservators, and has led to a challenge from the Epsom Equestrian Conservation Group (EECG), which claims the decision contravenes the bylaws governed by the Epsom and Walton Downs 1984 Regulation Act.

I've no intention here of going into the intricacies of local government, so let's look briefly at what will actually happen if the plans to go ahead. Lorries carrying waste material from two of the sites will simply use ordinary roads, passing along the back of the stands to reach their destination.

But one site is at the foot of Walton Downs, the highest point the racecourse close to the seven furlong start. The proposal here is for over 100 lorries, each carrying 20 tonnes of waste material, to trundle down a narrow bridleway across the racecourse to Tattenham Corner Road. It's this that has people up in arms.

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Hugh Craddock, bridleway officer for Epsom and Walton Downs said, "Our primary concern is the impact of 113 lorry loads driving across the foot of Walton Hill. If you are riding, walking or jogging down there, what are you meant to do when you meet a 20 tonne lorry? It's a narrow track and it's not wide enough to accommodate a lorry. At the meeting nobody even discussed that point." Wouldn't it make more sense then, for these lorries to use the ordinary roads instead? There's a straightforward route to do so, although it does go through a residential estate.

But the ECG is challenging the legality of any extraction at all. Chairperson Caroline Baldock said, "We are completely amazed that they want to do this when it is against the bylaws. We are going to lobby the planning committee." The bylaws in question, say the ECG Group, prevent "any digging for taking the stone, short, soil or other materials or the taking of turf, salts, trees, flowers, shrubs, plans or grass."

So where does the butterfly fit into all this? Well, it seems pretty clear that both the racecourse and the Epsom and Walton Downs Conservators who approved the proposal, have been seeking an environmental benefit to add weight to their otherwise flimsy plans.

A spokesperson said, "The Conservators were informed that the racecourse and its identified proposed location for sourcing the material as being one which would benefit in terms of ecology if fill material was taken from it. This area would help create a more natural Downs through the establishment of Kidney Vetch (a plant which only grows on alkaline soil with poor nutrients) and thus a provision of a habitat for the small blue butterfly. This would be a positive outcome for protecting the biodiversity of our environment."

The small blue, which actually has dark smoky brown wings, is Britain's smallest resident butterfly, with a wingspan which can be as little as 16 mm. Although it's not an endangered species, it isn't widespread either, and is usually found in small isolated communities.

Before the work finally receives the go-ahead, proposals have to be considered by the planning leisure committees at Epsom and Ewell Council. A key factor for them will be the document setting out the ecological impact of the proposal, alongside issues about access. At the moment it isn't clear how they will view these.

But if next year, or the year after, you're in one of the temporary stands at Tattenham Corner for the Derby, and the structure seems a little more stable than in previous years, you'll know the work has gone ahead. In that case, you might stroll across the racecourse at the end of the meeting and see if you can spot a small blue butterfly on Walton Downs.

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