Protesters turned out in force to oppose plans to destroy acres of ancient woodland to make way for a motorway service station.
National conservation society the Woodland Trust, Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England led the march through 800-year-old Smithy Wood in South Yorkshire yesterday.
The demonstration was organised in a bid to step up the campaign against Extra MSA Group’s controversial proposals to build a £36 million complex, complete with an 80-bedroom hotel, filling stations, food courts and shops, on 12th Century woodland near junction 35 of the M1.
The planning application submitted to Sheffield Council promises to compensate for the loss of historic habitat by creating a 39-acre woodland with 60,000 new trees.
Campaigners say this is an example of an attempt to use ‘biodiversity offsetting’ which if approved could pave the way for further destruction of ancient woodland across the region.
Oliver Newham, campaign leader at the Woodland Trust, said: “It was great to see so many local people out today demonstrating their support for this important ancient woodland. Newly planted trees will never recreate the same type of habitat as an 850-year-old woodland and the developer’s proposals are misleading in terms of the community woodland they plan to create, the vast majority of which already exists.
“We already have 6,000 signatures against this development and we hope now that many of these people will go on to put in an official objection to the proposal.”
Angela Smith, MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, joined campaigners on their march.
She said: “The destruction of one of the last remaining ancient woodlands in the country is not only wrong but also conflicts with many of the ideals Sheffield has always aspired to.
“The demonstration shows the strength of public feeling and I hope the developers recognise locals don’t want to see this and consider withdrawing their application.”
Smithy Wood is a haven for woodland plants, fungi and butterflies, and species of bird including the red listed Song Thrush and amber listed Dunnock, Bullfinch and Stock Dove.
It is one of a dozen sites in the region dating back to the 17th Century or earlier identified as at-risk.
The Woodland Trust fears the approval of the development could set a national precedent which would lead to an increase in biodiversity offsetting.
A letter signed by the Woodland Trust, Wildlife Trust, South Yorkshire CPRE and local residents’ groups, which calls for protection of Smithy Wood, was delivered to the door of current landowners St Paul’s Developments in Sheffield city centre.
The applicants say the service stop is needed because the current journey time between stations is 42 miles, which exceeds safety guidelines.
They have also promised the development will create hundreds of jobs.
Jean Howe, chairwoman of Cowley Residents’ Action Group, said: “We don’t believe their argument about safety.
“That sort of wildlife cannot be replaced. This isn’t wanted or needed.”
A spokeswoman for St Paul’s Development said: “The Extra MSA Group made a statement when the planning application was submitted.
“The application is now with the relevant parties and it is for them to determine the outcome. We have nothing further to add at this stage.”
Members of the public have until May 17 to express their views on the plans.