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Managing habitats by the railway

Railway tunnels, cuttings and bridges offer many habitats for animals and plants to thrive in – we manage these as sensitively as we can

It’s a balancing act for us to maintain and improve the railway to keep it running safely and smoothly, while being mindful of the land that surrounds it and the wildlife that lives on it. It’s a responsibility we take seriously.

We work closely with national and local organisations to make sure we meet, and where possible exceed, the legal requirements when it comes to protecting species and enhancing their environment.

Our project work can have an immediate impact on local biodiversity, but we’re testing methods of giving back to the natural environment more than our work has taken – often known as a net positive approach.

What is biodiversity?

The variety of life – made up of different plants and animals, including the habitats they live in.

Our net positive approach to biodiversity

Net positive biodiversity is simply defined as replacing more natural habitat than is lost as part of our work.

A number of our major projects – The Greater West, East West Rail, Midland Mainline route upgrade and Gospel Oak to Barking electrification – are leading role models for this approach. By sharing information and resources with our partners – Natural England, national and local conservation groups and local authorities – we can take a grassroots, collaborative approach enabling our stakeholders to create new habitats locally.

For example, clearing vegetation to prepare for electrification of the Great Western Mainline was going to impact on a community of dormice, but volunteers from Network Rail created a new habitat for them further along the line by planting woodland on grassland owned by the National Trust.

Read about some of our collaborative environmental projects

Green Transport Corridors

We’ve been working in partnership with Highways England, Natural England and The Wildlife Trusts through the Green Transport Corridors project to forge new approaches to managing the transport ‘soft estate’, to improve safety and performance on the network and benefit wildlife. Working towards net positive biodiversity is one part of this.

Responding to the Government’s Natural Environment White Paper, this project could change the way the ‘soft’ vegetated estate (green infrastructure) alongside and adjacent to road and rail lines can be managed for biodiversity gain and wider ecosystem services, for example by helping to prevent tree and leaf fall on the rail network while also providing net gains for nature. It could also improve the resilience of road and rail infrastructure to climate change.

Two pilot projects in the Humberhead Levels and Morecambe Bay Nature Improvement Areas are underway and will report back in the summer of 2017.

The Green Transport Corridors project has fed into the work of the Linear Infrastructure Network, which has set out how incorporating green infrastructure into linear infrastructure can both enhance asset resilience and performance, and deliver an improved return on investment: see Maximising linear infrastructure resilience, environmental performance and return on investment.

Sites of Special Scientific Interest

We manage hundreds of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and numerous wildlife sites of local importance. SSSIs are protected by law because they contain the core of Britain’s natural heritage.

At Feltham Marshalling Yards, for example, two dozen invertebrate species, including flies, bees, spiders and beetles have nationally important conservation status.

At Folkestone Warren, a large coastal SSSI in the south of England, we’re working to strengthen populations of rare wild flowers and animals, which have been under pressure from shading by the growth of shrubs and trees since cattle stopped grazing there in 1924.

Thanks to discussions with the White Cliffs Countryside Partnership early in 2016, we’re looking to introduce Highland cattle at the site as a low-cost, environmentally friendly solution – maintaining the chalk grassland, and hopefully allowing rare species such as the early spider orchid, the Grayling butterfly and Adonis blue butterfly to return.

Find out about a specific designated site