The Wildlife Haven that’s the UK’S Best Kept Secret

It’s a fair bet that few people know about this secret haven, so here are a few clues:

It’s rich in biodiversity and includes a massive 220 Sites of Special Scientific Interest

It contains the biggest population of the rare large blue butterfly in northern Europe


It’s home to many other rare or endangered species such as the dormouse, the osprey, the natterjack toad and the great crested newt.

Its other denizens include lizards, grass snakes, slow worms, water voles, deer, foxes, badgers, pipistrelle bats, and more.

Have you got there yet? If you have you’re a lot better informed than I am, because I did not know that Network Rail’s 30,000-40,000 hectares of land bordering our railway network makes up this wonderfully biodiverse nature reserve.

And the secret of this secret haven’s wildlife success? Strangely, though the two places have little else in common, it’s the same as Chernobyl‘s – there are no humans. As with Chernobyl, along the railway network of the UK, public access is banned. And without people, wildlife flourishes.


Of course, it’s not strictly true that there is no human intrusion on Network Rail’s land, because obviously their own employees have to work there. But any intrusion is limited and carefully managed to cause the least possible disruption for the flora and fauna.

Under the very lovely title “Sharing Our Railway with Wildlife” Network Rail sets out how it goes about protecting its ‘green corridor’ in which so many creatures have found the perfect habitat. (Ah, if only “sharing with wildlife” were the paradigm worldwide, instead of the ruthless despoiling human-interests-first-and-only approach that’s all pervasive today.)

The railway’s infrastructure inevitably requires new work, improvements and maintenance. So in the spirit of “sharing with wildlife” –

This is the Network Rail’s process

  • Their own in-house ecologists and environmental specialists undertake an ecological survey to identify animals, insects and plants that might be affected
  • From this they determine when is the best time of year to do the work, for example they might need to avoid nesting season
  • The next step is acquiring any licences they might need to work where there are protected species
  • And take practical steps to minimise their impact on said species
  • And bring in outside expertise where necessary. The Wildlife Trusts, The National Trust, the Amphibian and Reptile Conservations Trust are all contributing partners.

Well, ecological surveys are all very fine, but don’t the ‘Orange Army”, the men & women on the ground doing the hard graft, without the experts’ expertise, also need the ability to identify the plants and animals they come across as the work proceeds? Of course they do.


So this is what happens

  • The staff on the ground go through an e-learning induction course about the environment
  • They’re given a quick-reference set of picture cards to help them identify plants – very low tech compared with…
  • The 10,000 iPads, considered essential tools, Network Rail has issued on which the Orange Army uses NR’s new app for plant and animal identification. Workers can add their own photos and descriptions, and the app provides GPS co-ordinates which pinpoints sightings of the different species
  • All this data is fed back to the Geo-RINM (Rail Infrastructure Network Model) Viewer which gives office staff a detailed aerial view of the land

What it all means

When railway and wildlife needs appear to clash, the data helps provide solutions satisfactory to both. So when electrifying some line meant clearing away undergrowth which just happened to be home to a dormouse colony, a partnership with the National Trust helped create perfect new habitat for these little creatures.

Network Rail doesn’t just wait for a wildlife problem to present itself. It’s proactively enhancing existing habitats too – a relay room converted into a bat house, new breeding scrapes created for natterjacks.

UnknownAnd with perfect timing, at the start of National Badger Week (Saturday 25 June – Saturday 2 July), Network Rail unveiled a new way of working on major upgrade projects to protect badgers living by the railway.

More electrification work in London necessitates deep foundations for the wire-bearing gantries. As standard practice, an ecology survey was carried out. But instead of using the data to apply for a licence to move the badgers, the information was sent to the project team so that designers could see where the foundations should be put to ‘miss’ the badger setts. It’s a win-win. Not only does it mean that the badgers living alongside the railway can stay in their homes, but it also saves time and money on the project. Dominic Dyer, CEO of the Badger Trust congratulates Network Rail on this “a major environmental breakthrough.”

So well done Network Rail for the care you are quietly taking of our ‘secret’national wildlife haven. This truly is “Sharing Our Railway with Wildlife.”


(With grateful thanks to Adrian Backshall & Network Rail & Adrian Backshall for the beautiful photos of fox & adder, & Neil Strong for the equally beautiful large blue)





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