Noah's Ark sails from DP port

Small creatures move home to make way for London Gateway

About 100,000 voles, newts and other assorted creatures are standing in the way of DP World completing Europe's largest container port. The Dubai World subsidiary has already relocated 50,000 animals under a multimillion-dollar environmental plan that forms part of its £1.5 billion (Dh8.33bn) London Gateway project under development alongside the Thames estuary.

The project will be able to handle 3.5 million containers a year when it is completed some time this decade. It will also feature a logistics and business park, with more than 10 million square feet of warehousing and industrial space. It was first proposed more than a decade ago by Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation, which DP World bought in 2006. The more than 400 hectares of land chosen for the port used to be the site of the Shell Haven oil refinery, which closed in 1999.

Despite its status as a contaminated "brownfield" site, it has been slowly reclaimed by nature. A wide array of wildlife has returned, particularly reptiles such as adders and lizards, as well as newts, voles and an estimated 7,000 birds. While the birds can simply fly away as the dredging machines and jackhammers begin to arrive, the land creatures cannot. And under British law, builders "cannot kill or injure animals" during the construction phase for projects such as this, said Marcus Pearson, the environmental manager for the London Gateway project.

"But after that, how we deal with that is down to our own ingenuity and best practice," Mr Pearson said. DP World says it is spending £50m on an environmental programme that will cover the capture and relocation of the animals, plus an eight-year water monitoring programme. The level of investment is necessary to adhere to the UK's especially strict environmental regulations. Overall, DP World is required to obtain about 100 licences from five key regulators. Six teams of four people have for months been capturing the animals using 60km of temporary fencing and submerged buckets that the animals drop into, Mr Pearson said.

By this month, 300 water voles will have been relocated, while 350 endangered great-crested newts have been removed into 23 ponds north of the site, along with 30,000 smooth newts, DP World has said. About 2,000 grass snakes and adders and 6,000 lizards have been relocated to sites in Wiltshire and West Mersea. Some of the animals will be relocated to a new 30ha wetland DP World created yesterday by breaching part of the Essex coast's flood defence wall.

The new wildlife reserve will provide feeding areas for birds flying south for the winter and create new habitat for the animals. The environmental programme is being carried out in collaboration with groups such as the Essex Wildlife Trust. DP World has also hired a fisheries scientist it described as Europe's best as it seeks to lessen the effects of dredging at the site - some of which has already begun - and monitor water quality for contaminants stirred up.

About 80 species of fish will also reportedly be affected because the estuary is a nursery and feeding ground for herring, whiting, plaice, sprat, Atlantic cod and sand eels. DP World is devising ways to mitigate the effects on fishermen, most of whom have supported the ports company's efforts to date, Mr Pearson said. But at least a few have publicly questioned DP World's claim that the fish will "move away" and return when conditions improve.

"Fish just don't have this ability to understand when they are in danger," one fisherman told local media. DP World said its claims were based on scientific research.