Tree and vegetation management work between Rogart and Lairg has successfully been finished by Network Rail, on top of protecting nearby nesting hen harriers.
The location of the work runs through the Strath Carnaig and Strath Fleet SSSI - Site of Special Scientific Interest - and SPA - Special Protection Area.
Both are designated areas for supporting a population of breeding hen harrier which is of European importance.
Urgent works necessary for the safe operation of the railway coincided with breeding season so the works could have potentially disturbed breeding harriers.
But Network Rail’s ecology team worked with the Highland Raptor Study Group to conduct surveys for hen harrier - a bird of prey - within the vicinity of the line.
Jonathan Callis, Senior Asset Engineer for Network Rail, said “we take our responsibility to the lineside environment and Scotland’s wildlife extremely seriously.”
He continued, “however, to protect the safety of the railway and those who travel on it, we sometimes need to carry out work during bird nesting season, in protected areas or in this case, both.”
“It is then we seek the help of our ecologists and specialists to develop safe ways of working and best practice to minimise disruption and protect any species or habitats adjacent to the line."
The Senior Asset Engineer added, “we are delighted the care, professionalism and collaboration demonstrated by everyone who contributed to this project has resulted in such a successful outcome for the birds.”
Once breeding harriers had been identified, Network Rail put in place unique working procedures to reduce disruption for the birds, and three hen harrier chicks successfully fledged from nests adjacent to the work site.
A real success story for these protected birds.
A ‘high-risk works area’ was identified as part of the mitigation measures put in place for the hen harriers, which incorporated areas adjacent to the railway line that offered appropriate nesting and foraging habitats, as well as areas where hen harrier activity was noted.
Due to strict guidelines, no work was permitted in the area around the nests until all breeding attempts were concluded.
Measures were also put in place to minimise noise disturbance, through the use of battery-operated chainsaws, and time limited working in any one area to keep noise to a minimum.
Before any form of work could kickstart, an additional survey was carried out to check any nesting hen harriers and to confirm that the works were safe to proceed.
A camera was also installed to monitor the nesting locations during the work and to check that there were no signs of disturbance.
Brian Etheridge, from the Highland Raptor Study Group, said “it was a pleasure to work with Network Rail this spring and summer carrying out ornithological surveys in the vicinity of the track between Rogart and Lairg.”
He continued, “the priority was to look for breeding hen harriers, a scarce and threatened bird of prey for which this area has been designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA).”
He added, "two nesting pairs were found, with one nest in close proximity of the track. Network Rail were quick to suspend all track-side scrub clearance in a bid to prevent any disturbance to the nesting pair."