‘Mean’ Leighton Buzzard quarry operators accused of using ‘giant hoover’ to suck away island where rare birds nest

Grovebury Quarry lake and island      Photo:Google
Grovebury Quarry lake and island Photo:Google

An outraged wildlife enthusiast has criticised a quarry operator for using its ‘giant hoover’ to suck away an island which he says is home to rare bird species.

Tony Donnelly, former volunteer warden for the Bedfordshire Wildlife Trust, has been bird watching at Grovebury Quarry for 30 years, along with many others who visit the site.

But he was furious, when operators Aggregate Industries/Garside Sands recently began extracting sand from the island located within the large lake on the site, which is situated on the southern side of the Leighton Buzzard bypass.

With sand reserves at the quarry nearly exhausted, Mr Donnelly said the island had shrunk to a third of its original size in just a few weeks and criticised Aggregate of trying to ‘milk’ the land for ever last grain of sand with little regard for the wildlife.

He said: “They get the sand with a giant hoover and suck it out of the lake. The island was about 19ft high. Three weeks ago they started sucking the island up. Two-thirds of the island is gone.

“It was about 80-100ft wide with gradual banks. But now on the side where they are working there’s a 13ft high cliff. It’s near where Lesser Black Backed Gulls are nesting. It’s a really important site, one of the few islands in the county for birds to nest on.”

He raged: “Billions of tonnes of sand must have been extracted in the last 30-40 years, and they must have made hundreds of millions of pounds - even more when they sell the old quarries for massive housing estates like they have elsewhere in Leighton Buzzard.

“But they’ve got to suck up the last few tonnes of sand there. Birds are nesting there at the moment. It’s outrageous. I think it’s pretty mean.”

Mr Donnelly said there were plenty of fairly rare bird species at the quarry. “In the last year there’s been 100 Sand Martins nesting on the island, seven pairs of Common Tern, a pair of Oystercatchers, and Little Ringed Plovers which are a protected species. There’s also Canada geese and other more common birds.

“Sand Martins are starting to nest now. If they are starting to work while they are nesting, that’s not allowed. The Plovers too, they are quite rare and protected.”

Kirsten Hannaford-Hill, Estates Surveyor at Aggregate Industries, said: ​“I can confirm that we propose to retain the island located within our site, as illustrated on our revised restoration plan submitted as part of a recent planning application to the council.

“The company still has remaining reserves within the lake floor which will sensitively be extracted to reduce any impact upon the local habitat which thrives on site.”

She confirmed that the island’s final shape would alter as part of ongoing operations but added: “The company understand its importance as a habitat and shall preserve this feature as part of the final restoration scheme.”

Grovebury Quarry sand extraction is currently due to finish at the end of July 2021.

However Aggregate has now submitted a planning application to Central Beds Council to extend quarrying to the east of site by 1.6 hectares, which would allow an additional 300,000 tonnes to be removed. Work would then continue for an additional year.

The company states: “An approval of this planning application avoids the unnecessary sterilisation of the silica sand reserves beneath the proposed extension area. It would make a small contribution towards maintaining the supply of silica sand and provide a further year of working with the economic benefits that would flow from what is recognised as a nationally important mineral.”

Silica sand is extracted using a suction dredger where sand is sucked from the underwater quarry face and then pumped to the processing plant via a long pipe where it is washed and graded. This method of extraction has been adopted since the quarry first opened in the 1920s.

The quarry produces around 350,000 tonnes of sand per year, although it has reached as high as 500,000 tonnes during the early 1990s.

The revised restoration scheme for the site features a large recreational (sailing) lake set within a mixture of restored agricultural land and fishing to the west and recreational beaches situated below wooded side slopes to the north and east and extensive areas of reedbed to the south.