The village of Hilton in south Derbyshire lies to the south and west of two main cross-country routes; the A50 running west to east and the A38 from south to north. A mainline railway lies to the south.
In 1942, three of the farms lying immediately to the south of Hilton were requisitioned by the War Department for use as a US Army camp, with up to 3000 American servicemen stationed there. After the war the site was taken over by the British Army, and used for the storage of anti-aircraft guns, search-lights and other military equipment. A series of large sheds were erected in the 1950s (Fig. 1), and the workforce was employed in the storage, repair and maintenance of all types of passenger and load-carrying vehicles for the Army, Navy and Air Force.
In the late 1980s the site was closed by the Ministry of Defence and in 1992 it was acquired by St Modwen for use as a Business Park. From this time until 2017/18, much of the site consisted of stoned hard surfacing and buildings for the storage and maintenance of cars and commercial vehicles (Fig. 2).
Figs. 1 & 2 Former Hilton Depot – 2017 – before re-development
Facing a housing shortage, South Derbyshire District Council needed new homes, as well as additional opportunities for employment. Responding to the demand, St Modwen drew up a masterplan for the Hilton Depot site, this to include a mixed development comprising up to 485 dwellings, employment units for use as offices and/or light industry (use classes B1 A & C), general industry (use class B2) and/or storage or distribution (use class B8), primary school, community facilities including doctors, dentist and/or creche (use classes D1), retail (use class A1) and other service uses consisting of financial and professional services (use class A2 ), restaurants and cafes (use class A3) and/or hot food takeaways (use class A5) and assembly and leisure (use class D2) along with associated access, parking, footpath/cycleways, public open space including allotments, landscaping and other infrastructure.
The scheme would create significant local employment during the construction phases and long term new employment associated with the commercial areas.
As part of the vision for the site, now called Hilton Valley, St. Modwen also allocated all the land to the south of the re-development as public amenity space and a wildlife conservation area.
To assess the potential implications of the re-development on wildlife, St Modwen instructed Cotswold Wildlife Surveys to carry out a series of ecological surveys across the whole Hilton Depot site.
Between 2010 and 2017, the land was checked for bats, breeding birds, riparian mammals (Otters and Water Voles), Badgers, reptiles and Great Crested Newts, with habitat surveys focussing on the botanical interest, in particular the quality of the dense conifer plantation located along the southeastern boundary of the site.
The floral diversity was found to be relatively poor, with the conifer plantation dominated by Elder and densely planted Corsican Pine (Fig. 3), although scattered within it were a variety of broadleaved species, including Pedunculate Oak, Turkey Oak, Ash, Silver Birch, Goat Willow, Bay Willow, Hazel and Hawthorn. Several ditches ran through the woodland, one of which contained flowing water from a culverted brook which ran under the site.
Fig. 3 Conifer plantation
In terms of wildlife, there was a small heronry and Badger sett in the conifer plantation, with another Badger sett on the southwestern boundary. No bat roosts were found, but small numbers of Common and Soprano Pipistrelles, Noctule and a myotis species were noted foraging around the site, particularly along the woodland edges.
A total of 21 species of birds were observed during the walkover visits. Three of these are Species of High Conservation Concern (RSPB Red list); Song Thrush, Willow Tit and House Sparrow, two are Species of Medium Conservation Concern (RSPB Amber List); Dunnock and Bullfinch, whilst the rest are Species of Low Conservation Concern (RSPB Green list). Several of these birds were potentially nesting in the plantation woodlands and scrub areas, although some such as Woodcock and Siskin are winter visitors.
No reptiles or Great Crested Newts were recorded, but small numbers of Common Toads and Smooth Newts were noted.
Enhancing biodiversity and amenity value – demonstrating best practice
By determining the environmental parameters at an early stage, St Modwen were able to fully understand and evaluate the ecological constraints at the concept and design phase, giving them time to build in a programme of biodiversity and amenity enhancements to benefit wildlife and the local community prior to any works commencing.
Working closely with Cotswold Wildlife Surveys, a ride was created through the plantation within which the watercourse was re-aligned and de-culverted (Fig. 4). As an extra enhancement, native, emergent vegetation has been planted in the new channel, whilst the sides have been sown with a wildflower mix to create new opportunities for a wide range of invertebrates, including butterflies, moths, bees and hoverflies. These in turn are preyed upon by birds and bats which use the new corridor as a foraging route.
Linking to the ride, a winding path has been created through the plantation (Fig. 5). The edges have been sown with a woodland wildflower seed mix, whilst small clearings have been planted with a variety of fruit trees to provide food for Badgers and other wildlife. The path runs past the heronry, and visitors can listen in wonder to the guttural calls of the chicks echoing from their nests in the tree tops.
Figs. 4 & 5 De-culverted watercourse (L) and woodland path (R)
Between the plantation and the new houses, a small lake has been created, this containing a flat, gravelled island which has now vegetated over with low scrub (Fig. 6).
Fig. 6 New lake and island
A pair of Mute Swans has taken up residence, and a Green Sandpiper has also been recorded, which is an uncommon species and clearly benefitting from the creation of the new water body.
Other birds using the lake include House Martins, these gathering mud from the edges for their nests in the residential area. This nationally declining species was not present when the site was a depot, so the lake and houses have provided new opportunities to increase the population locally. Red listed Starlings are also present in good numbers, and a screen of native broadleaves along the site boundaries supports a variety of breeding warblers, tits and finches.
The hard surfacing once used to store vehicles has been remediated, and has now been seeded with a wildflower meadow mix, such that the lake sits in a wide swathe of grassland full of life and colour, with informal pathways for the residents to get close to nature. This space also operates as a flood compensation area and has been construction in close liaison with the Environment Agency.
Community and Stakeholder Engagement
Both the local community and Hilton Valley residents have been thrilled with the new spaces that have been created, so much so that the Derbyshire Telegraph wrote a feature on the opening. A video of the new space is included within the article: https://www.derbytelegraph.co.uk/burton/gorgeous-nature-walk-haven-stunning-4709724.
Before the second national lockdown was announced, an official launch event had been planned to introduce the space to the children at Hilton Valley’s newly built Mease Spenser Academy. Sam Beckett, from the Hilton Conservation Group, was set to guide the children in an outdoor activity session, however unfortunately the formal event had to be cancelled. Despite this, the community and school were actively encouraged to explore their newly opened space by St Modwen, and the following words of support were received by the stakeholders:
“Diversity of local wildlife is something we can often take for granted. Features of the new space in Hilton are quite remarkable, in that they encourage natural regeneration and make space for new species to thrive. I look forward to coming back to run activities with local children, as soon as it is possible to do so.”
Sam Beckett, Hilton Conservation Group
“As we’re in such close proximity to the Hilton Valley development, we’ve been watching and waiting for the moment the open space was completed. Our children will benefit greatly from exposure to such an interesting landscape, which offers so many opportunities for them to learn about the environment and local wildlife. Of course, they also can’t wait to play in the large open space which we simply didn’t have before! We’re very grateful to St. Modwen for developing such a valuable community asset.”
Julia Hart, Principal of The Mease Spenser Academy
“We have just been to the water pond and new walkway through the woods and it is fantastic! What an amazing feature to have right on our doorstep. It’s such a shame we couldn’t have a celebration to thank the teams involved in person, hopefully, this will be something we can do when things return to normal.”
Rosie Coulton, Hilton Valley resident
St Modwen have also been absolutely thrilled with the outcome and also the positive feedback from the community:
“The opening of the space on the day ‘Lockdown 2’ commenced was a great example of how we as a business are working hard to support our communities and help improve their health, wellbeing and quality life.
As part of the project team and a member of our Health and Wellbeing Responsible Business Group, now, more than ever, we know that keeping well and looking after both physical and mental health is so important for members of our communities. Spending time in fresh air is one of the easiest ways to ensure we feel rejuvenated and energised.
We’ve worked hard to create a space that current and future Hilton residents can be proud of, not only do these areas improve and create new habitats for wildlife, they provide environmental, social, educational, and health and wellbeing benefits to local residents and their families.”
Andrea Clarke, Residential Portfolio Manager at St. Modwen
There has also been a lot of hard work done by St Modwen to actively engage with the residents to educate them on the benefits of this space both for themselves and the wider natural environment which can be seen in the newsletters and the ‘welcome to Hilton Valley’ brochure.
St Modwen are also looking to implement a number of other initiatives including:
Working with Spencer Mease Academy to be able to open an outdoor educational ecology area (outdoor classroom surrounded by nature);
Further collaboration with Hilton Conversation Group, Derbyshire Wildlife Trust, Parish Council and local stakeholders, e.g. Hilton Harriers on the scheme;
Way finding, educational information boards in the public open space area are currently in progress to create a space where the community will take ownership and have appreciation of their natural environment.
Promoting and subsequently developing this brownfield site initially posed a significant challenge for St Modwen, as a phased demolition and remediation programme had to be completed in order to unlock early phases of residential development, whilst keeping commercial occupiers in-situ whilst new premises were also built on site.
However, Hilton Valley has proved to be a great success, and one that has not only resulted in a fantastic place to live and work for the local residents, but a great place for wildlife and informal recreation as well.
Indeed, the ecologically sympathetic approach to the development, coupled with St Modwen’s responsible and informed attitude, has ensured that wildlife will continue to flourish, whilst local people and visitors alike, will find enjoyment from the woodlands, grassland and waterways that sit right on their doorstep.