Guest Blog: Managing trees and vegetation whilst being mindful of sustainability

Guest Blog: Managing trees and vegetation whilst being mindful of sustainability

By James Morrison, Senior Asset Engineer at Network Rail Scotland

It is a significant and ongoing challenge to manage the many risks that trees and vegetation can pose on our long, but generally narrow, infrastructure corridors. We cover the varied geography of Scotland which requires our teams, supported by specialist contractors, to be based strategically. Local knowledge of the infrastructure and asset condition, plus the ability to respond quickly to any issues is fundamental.

We make management decisions using data and imagery collected during multiple inspections undertaken by trains, people on foot, drones and manned aircraft. This is combined with additional information from our passenger and freight customers, neighbours and multiple key stakeholders. We then generate risk based workstreams so we can best deploy people and equipment to deliver this work efficiently and cost effectively on behalf of the taxpayers who fund the railway.

We also have to balance our operational responsibilities with those of being a large landowner, as the railway contains significant flora and fauna and in turn natural capital. We employ professional (in house) ecologists to advise our teams on how to protect this biodiversity based on site observations, historic records or legal designations. Not all trees and vegetation are a risk to trains so we can, where safe to do so, retain, pollard or prune trees. Every site has specific requirements, and it takes the work of many professionals from across Scotland to manage the lineside areas that flank the tracks.

First and foremost, Scotland’s Railway fulfils a variety of travel needs from business and leisure to daily commuter services, including cross border services. 

However, we equally have a responsibility to appropriately offset our tree and vegetation works that support this primary function. Our approach is governed by railway standards that reflect targets from our regulators and funders. But more importantly, it is the right thing to do.

Replanting is only one aspect of improving biodiversity on the railway. Mitigating the impact of our work takes many forms such as the habitat piles of cut woody material or standing and lying sections of dead wood. Raptor perching poles, crevice creation and veteran feature mimicry (via cutting incisions in trees) and provision of bird and bat boxes are some other methods deployed. Where appropriate and access to maintain is available, we plant native grass and wildflower areas, high wildlife value hedgerows and even small ponds can be considered. 

Mitigation can take place on railway land (where space allows) or alternatively in locations adjacent to, or even remote from the railway (offsetting). We are currently working to establish suitable partnerships with other landowners where offsetting would be appropriate. Locations on such land and where public access is possible have an added advantage to the people of Scotland as they can potentially visit these locations and enjoy them.

As a large landowner, we feel we can have a tangible and positive impact on biodiversity and sustainability and the changes we are making are also being acknowledged and welcomed at a local level by communities.

Article posted on 29/09/2022