HomeBusinessFrom newts to knotweed: Managing the ecology of the railway

From newts to knotweed: Managing the ecology of the railway

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Bird nesting season is over, leaf fall is already in full swing and nature’s life cycles are slowing down in preparation for winter. Network Rail and the train operating companies work extremely hard throughout the year to reduce the effect of delays on services and mitigate autumn and winter delays, including the ongoing management of trees and vegetation growing alongside the railway. When broad leaf trees lose their leaves, complications arise with slippery platforms and Teflon-like coatings are deposited on the rail tracks, causing railway delays.

The railway environment is constantly changing as trees and vegetation grow relentlessly, both alongside the railway and in close proximity to overhead cables. Add to this the tens of thousands of trees growing along thousands of hectares of the national network, tonnes of leaves falling onto the railway annually and storms upsetting roots resulting in trees and branches falling onto the lines, and it’s easy to see how damage and delays occur.

Bats and badgers

Many protected species, including birds, badgers, hazel dormice, great crested newts and lots of other animals, call these environments home. Within any site, large or small, it is essential to identify the presence of protected species. For this, a specialist is usually called in, one with the expertise and manpower to conduct the survey and report on its findings.

One such is Ground Control, an Essex-based company that operates nationally, having acquired the UPM Tilhill rail business in 2012. RISQS approved for vegetation management, fencing, weed control and ecology, the company offers advice to customers based on best practice, and once an invasive species is identified, has the resources to undertake further investigative works.

As Ground Control has its own in-house design department, which includes many highly skilled ecologists, it is able to work alongside clients to provide:

  • Environmental impact assessments;
  • Extended phase 1 habitat surveys;
  • Protected species surveys;
  • Species mitigation and translocation;
  • BREEAM assessments;
  • Ecological clerk of works.

Working within the National Planning Policy Framework, the company delivers across all stages of the planning approval and development process, providing accurate GIS, CAD and GPS spatially- referenced data and drawings.

Invasive species

While the threat to wildlife is being managed, over the last 40 years or so, a significant group of invasive non-native species has become established throughout the network.

Invasive species continue to pose a significant threat to the environment. In fact, invasive non-native species are now recognised as the second biggest threat to biodiversity worldwide, which is why it is all the more important to be able to distinguish the threats.

Japanese Knotweed, an extremely aggressive, alienating species listed by the World Conservative Union as one of the most invasive species due to its rapid growth (up to 20 centimetres a day), is extremely difficult to remove. From an ecological point of view, it destroys the habitats of native species, putting bio-regions at notable risk, which is subsequently a threat to the environment.

Overall, it is detrimental to buildings and land, blocking footpaths, damaging concrete, tarmac and the stability of riverbanks. Japanese Knotweed is a huge threat, not only to the landscaping industry, but to many other vertical sectors, ranging from railway networks to highways, water networks and the property industry.

Today, invasive species are causing structural damage to the tune of £2.1 billion per year, according to figures from the Environment Agency and the Department of the Regions. The problem is so severe that the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors now surveys for Japanese Knotweed in or near the property as part of its mortgage survey. If it is found to be present, not only will the property be devalued by around 40 per cent, neighbouring properties’ values will be affected, often resulting in litigation.

Although Japanese Knotweed is the most pernicious to control, it is not alone. Another invasive species known to cause detrimental damage is Himalayan Balsam, which spreads its seed through biological ‘explosions’. These seeds can remain viable for five years, meaning a long-term treatment regime is crucial.

Giant Hogweed.
Giant Hogweed.

Giant Hogweed contains sap that can cause horrific blisters when in contact with skin. However, it is susceptible to herbicide if treated correctly.

To combat this threat, Ground Control’s services include:

  • Pre-development site surveys;
  • Biosecurity;
  • The legislative landscape and organisations’ legal obligations;
  • Full technical support and advice;
  • Long-term treatment guarantees;
  • Internal staff training for customers;
  • Lantra-registered training.

Timing of treatment, whether for Knotweed or other invasive species, is critical for achieving acceptable levels of control- and early engagement is recommended. Japanese Knotweed is an herbaceous species, which lies dormant throughout the winter, making it incredibly difficult to pick up during these months. But that’s not all, the species will start to appear in mid-to-late March and is most active throughout the summer growing season. To be able to spot any invasive species on and around rail networks, knowing what they look like is crucial.

Ground Control is currently supporting Network Rail staff to ensure they possess the knowledge of what to look for when identifying invasive species. This includes their natural habitats, what environmental factors increase their growth and most importantly, the warning signs. This way, rail engineers and other staff will know what they are looking for during their everyday activities, speeding up the process of treating it before it impacts on such areas as neighbouring cities and towns.

Following identification, the next step is to call in the experts. Ground Control can assist rail networks in creating a long-term strategy that includes a sustained annual tri-treatment chemical control regime. With this comes the saving of much-needed money in comparison with the likely significant cost of having to dig up and remove the invasive species from around and sometimes even underneath the rail tracks.

Vegetation management

Ground Control has worked for many years in the field of arboriculture; surveying and assessing the conditions of trees to establish whether they are dead, dying or diseased, and where necessary, managing them in accordance with BS3998:2010 (Tree Work, Recommendations). The rail network requires the same management activities to avoid disruption, so clearing vegetation and trees lineside is critical. The cost of disruption is not easily calculated to the economy, but is likely to be significant.

Industry-standard chainsaw and chipping techniques are applied to clearance work but, after some recent investments, the process is now being mechanised. With the right conditions on track and around access to sites, this can greatly speed up the rate of clearance, reducing the number of workers in or around the railway environment.

Ground Control is both an innovator and pioneer of technology, delivering a range of services including grounds maintenance, winter maintenance, tree works and vegetation management, soft and hard landscaping, ecology, design and build, pest control, fencing and roofing services.

Ecology and environment concerns remain at the forefront of all that the company does and, as environmental awareness remains topical in today’s society, it is keen to be sustainable when it comes to wildlife and our surroundings. Ground Control’s managers are expertly trained to work across the range of possible systems and site types to ensure that customers continue to enjoy their services efficiently throughout the year.

Read more: Sustainability and the fallout from scrapped electrification plans




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