Bee orchard land on the market

By Saul Cooke-Black   |   BBC local democracy reporter   |
Sunday 7th March 2021 10:23 am
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THERE is speculation over the future of the grassland home of a rare flower after it was put up for sale by its land development owners.

The 0.94-acre site, on the corner of Chartist Rise and Cornpoppy Avenue in Monmouth, is being marketed by EJ Hales on behalf of Robert Hitchins Ltd, alongside a smaller 0.31-acre parcel of land on the opposite side of the road.

The fenced-off former farmland is home to the rare bee orchid flower and more than 55 other wildflower species, which Robert Hitchins last year pledged not to mow during the growing season.

The business has restated that it will stick to the pledge, but the land, which has been left undeveloped from the 2000 creation of the new Rockfield estate, is being marketed as “suitable for a variety of uses subject to planning consent being granted”.

Whether that could involve a fresh move to try and build there is unknown, but planning permission for six homes was rejected for the larger site, which now has a ‘private land’ sign on it, 10 years ago, alongside three homes for the smaller parcel of land.

Planners ruled in 2011 that it was in a flood plain, lying right beside the aptly-named Watery Lane, which regularly floods in winter,

A spokesperson for the business said this week that it has not fixed a price tag on the sale of the land, and environmental groups are now considering a possible approach to see whether they would be willing sell it at the price of agricultural land or even gift it.

Monmouth was the first ‘Bee-Friendly’ designated town, and nature lovers believe there could be three positive outcomes for the site, including Robert Hitchins donating the land to a body such as Monmouthshire Meadows Group or Monmouthshire Council to maintain it as a nature reserve, with an in-perpetuity protection clause.

Other positive alternatives they see could be the business leasing the land for a peppercorn rent, or selling it for a nominal sum.

Orchids of the UK member Jennifer Robbins, who lives near the site, contacted Robert Hitchins Ltd at the start of the month to ask their contractors not to mow the land until September/October.

She said: “This will allow the hundreds of rare bee orchids and over 55 species of wildflowers to seed.

“Sadly last year, again, the ground was mowed hard despite several requests from Monmouthshire County Council, Gwent Wildlife Trust, Monmouthshire Meadows and Bee Friendly organisations.”

She said she walks past the site daily and the Bee Orchids are already starting to show shoots.

“Visitors to Monmouth are welcomed by Monmouth Bee Town road signs, and it would be wonderful if this rare bee orchid and wildflower meadow was protected for the local community and visitors to enjoy,” she added. “Numerous rosettes of the bee orchids have begun appearing two months early, and we spotted more than 30 from one spot on the pavement, so this year there may be over a thousand beautiful bee orchids, centaury, birdsfoot trefoil and other wildflowers and butterflies if the land is spared regular mowing…

“It would be great if Robert Hitchins Ltd could… show they were environmentally responsible and a bee friendly builder while the future of this land is decided.”

She added: “The plot is now labelled a flood risk on the map issued by Natural Resource Wales after recent serious flooding of Watery Lane and houses only 160 metres away rendered inhabitable for months, with people being rescued in a dinghy by Monmouth Fire Brigade and Longtown Mountain Rescue. If the land was repriced as poor agricultural it would be within the reach of local charities who have expressed an interest.”

Last October, following protests from wildlife campaigners, the firm said it was “happy” to leave the ground “unmown” during the growing season, but anyone accessing the “private land” would be “trespassing”.

A spokesperson also said: ““The growing season is weather/seasonal dependent. So we will be guided by that each year and not calendar dates.”

And in a response to Jennifer Robbins this week, the firm said: “Since the back end of last year Robert Hitchins Ltd have agreed to not mow the orchids during the growing season…” adding that “the sale of (the) land has never had a price tag associated with it.

“I hope the above reassurance of our mowing programme on our private land can now put your concerns to bed,” it continued.

Despite protests from ecologists and local residents, the site was mown regularly until last autumn’s about-turn, with the Cheltenham-based firm saying that to leave it uncut “would reduce the value of our investment”.

The site, which was originally intended for retail development and then a community hall, has more bee orchids in one concentration than anywhere else in the county, if not in Wales, according to MMG chair Rachel Morgan.

Calls have previously been made for local people to club together to try and buy the land.

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