Habitat map

Revolutionary technology used to develop thousands of miles of lineside biodiversity

As part of Network Rail’s new action plan for sustainable vegetation management, scientists are using ground-breaking technology along with Britain’s 20,000-mile rail network.

The UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) has used high-resolution imagery from satellites and aircraft to create a detailed national map of all the habitats found alongside the rail network, which dates back almost 200 years.

By joining this information with millions of records of species, UKCEH has predicted what animals and plants are likely to be present in these lineside habitats including grasslands, heathlands and woodland.

This key information will ensure Network Rail workers and contractors are conscious of the possible presence of rare species when carrying out vegetation management, plus notify the company’s conservation measures to increase biodiversity. It also provides a baseline for monitoring future trends in biodiversity.

This initiative is part of Network Rail’s new Biodiversity Action Plan, drawn up in partnership with UKCEH scientists, which is an imperative step up in achieving a sustainably managed lineside.

Habitat piles

Since the 1960s, there have been large changes in vegetation associated with the railway, which has resulted in the loss of biodiverse, flower-rich habitats. In its plan, Network Rail has committed to end net loss in biodiversity on its land by 2024 and achieve a net gain by 2035.

Professor Richard Pywell of UKCEH said: “This is an ambitious new plan to use the latest technology to manage habitats more sustainably along Britain’s railways, and it has been a great opportunity to work with Network Rail to improve biodiversity.

 “Using high-resolution satellite and aircraft imagery enables us to map habitats across the rail network in a safe, quick and cost-effective way. By analysing the wealth of biological records across the UK, we have been able to identify likely biodiversity ‘hotspots’ and understand more about the role of the railway in connecting wildlife across landscapes. Together, this new information will inform Network Rail’s thinking on how best to maintain and enhance the environment.”

Martin Frobisher, Network Rail’s Safety, Technical and Engineering director, said: “This technology is tremendously exciting. Measuring biodiversity is very complicated and it’s especially tricky for a large organisation such as Network Rail, which manages a vast land estate spread throughout the country. This is a real breakthrough and this technology enables us to measure and monitor the progress we are making. 

 “We are determined to improve biodiversity alongside the railway lineside. Our Biodiversity Action Plan sets out a new approach and by working with experts like UKCEH and by using the latest tools and technology we can better manage and conserve a species-rich lineside while continuing to run a safe and reliable railway that benefits our passengers, our neighbours, and our planet.”

Rail Minister, Chris Heaton Harris, said: “This high-tech approach will help the rail industry do even more to preserve the unique and picturesque habitats found alongside our rail network.

“By protecting biodiversity hotspots and rare species, the use of science and satellites is making the railway an even greener way to travel.”

Biodiversity rare species

Images: Network Rail 

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