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Specially Interesting

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As the world becomes a greener place, with green initiatives, a green agenda and even green trains(!), landowners and businesses are being encouraged to protect our natural resources in all their forms.

Those areas of the country thought to be most in need of protection have been designated “Sites of Special Scientific Interest”, or SSSIs.

SSSIs are not new. Many came into existence under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. However, the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act introduced the current legal framework and this was amended by later legislation and now covers the whole of the UK.

Today, there are over 4,000 SSSIs in England alone, covering some 7% of the country’s total land area. Their ownership is no different from the rest of the countryside – some are nationally owned, some by local authorities and some by private landowners.

SSSIs are split into two basic types; Biological and Geological. Around 80% of SSSIs area also classified as European Special Areas of Conservation (SACs), Special Protection Areas (SPAs) or Ramsar sites of International Wetland Importance (named after the Convention on Wetlands, signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971).

All sites are classified by condition and are designated as being in one of four categories – Favourable, Unfavourable/Recovering, Unfavourable and Declining.

Recent legislation requires landowners not only to protect these sites but to actively improve those that are in the bottom two categories.

SSSIs on the railway

As a major landowner, it is not surprising that Network Rail owns a number of SSSIs. In fact, it possesses about 230 in total, 146 of them in England.

These have to be protected when any adjacent railway work needs to be carried out, and those which are deemed to be ‘Unfavourable’ or ‘Declining’ need to be actively improved.

To do this, a team of four experts are deployed around the country in a team headed up by the Environment Manager for Infrastructure Maintenance, Katy Littler.

Protecting SSSIs from accidental damage is a major part of the team’s work. All sites are listed in Network Rail’s planning directory, and are also on the GI portal (formerly called MARLIN) of Geographical Information.

Every delivery team around the country includes a Workforce Health Safety and Environment Advisor and it is their responsibility to ensure that SSSIs are identified and protected.

Work can still be done directly on SSSIs, but this has to be approved by Natural England, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) or the Countryside Council for Wales (CCW).

Accidents and Improvement

However accidents do happen. The derailment at Cruachan in Scotland, covered by the rail engineer last year in issue 69 (July 2010), took place close to an SSSI.

In such cases the enforcement authority is notified, a plan of action agreed, and any necessary work carried out by cleanup specialists.

At Cruachan, this was the possibility of diesel and other fluids leaking into the loch and contaminating the water. A series of protective booms were employed to mitigate this danger.

In addition to this day-to-day supervision of Network Rail’s portfolio of SSSIs, a major part of Katy’s work is in improving the Declining sites to meet government targets.

Natural England, responding to a European Directive, announced a Public Service Agreement target to bring 95% of SSSI land in England into at least “Recovering” status by the end of 2010 and 100% by 2012. SNH and CCW have broadly similar targets.

In all, 21 Network Rail sites were identified as needing work and a budget of £6.1 million allocated to the work.


When assessing sites, Natural England works on a system of “units” of area. Some small sites are a single unit while larger ones can be many units in size. Each unit is assessed separately.

For example, at Great Stukeley near Peterborough there is an 8-unit site. Six of these were classified as Recovering while only two were Declining, meaning that Network Rail only had to improve those two units, not the whole site.

Work was done to improve those units, and the whole site is now managed by the simple process of grazing sheep on it.

They are all safely fenced in, so no PTS cards are needed! Today, the site has a third party agreement with Huntingdon district council. The land is partly managed by the council and part of the management is to allow sheep to graze on most of the land.

Other work involves volunteers doing light maintenance including scrub clearance and fencing work.

The actual approach needed varies from site to site. Folkestone Warren is a massive site, 200 units in all, partly on Network Rail land and partly not.

A third party agreement was negotiated with the White Cliffs Countryside Partnership (WCCP) which allows its two patrons to manage the land on Network Rail’s behalf.

Management and funding is managed externally and, while Network Rail’s local teams are still involved, this ten year funded management plan (with a break clause after 3 years) passes their legal obligations over to the WCCP.

Improving the environment

The type of damage which can cause a site to be classified as Declining is not necessarily down to railway activities. At Honley Station Cutting near Leeds, tree roots were threatening to destabilise the side banks affecting important geological features, so the trees had to be removed.

At another geological site, Dawlish Cliffs, the cliff faces had been invaded by Hottentot fig which had found a foothold out of reach of conventional weed sprayers. Network Rail’s Plymouth-based team removed vegetation at the base of the cliffs to allow access to specialised sprayers that could kill the fig and reveal more of the cliffs.

In the rush to build railways in the middle of the nineteenth century, the planning process was rudimentary at best, and as a result railway lines pass right though some of the country’s most interesting countryside.

A good example of this is in the New Forest, which has a range of habitat types including large tracts of unenclosed pasture, heathland and forest and is home to numerous species of birds, reptiles and mammals.

Working closely with the Forestry Commission, Natural England and the New Forest Verderers, the Eastleigh team carried out £400,000 of improvements to the site which has now been reclassified as Recovering.

Glacial Deposits

In a way, the railway is a good place for an SSSI. Apart from necessary work, the site remains largely undisturbed by both people and agricultural activities.

Some access, however, can be required by scientists and others, as is the case at Hornchurch Cutting, a geological site that was recently visited by a Channel 4 film crew and is one of the most important ice-age sites in Britain.

It is a glacial deposit containing Jurassic-age rocks and fossils that were carried there from the Midlands and which mark the most southerly edge of the ice sheet which covered most of Britain 450,000 years ago.

This cutting is the only site which reveals river gravels from the modern Thames lying on top of the glacial deposits, and scientists believe that this indicates that the River Thames was diverted southwards from its original course through East Anglia into its current valley through London.

Although discovered during the construction of the Romford to Upminster branch line in 1892, the site had become badly overgrown and work by the local Network Rail team from Romford has only recently uncovered this important feature which is much valued by geologists studying the impact of former climatic changes on Britain’s landscape.

Katy Littler is very pleased with the progress being made in improving those Network Rail SSSIs that need it.

All of the 21 sites are on target and currently 82.1% are Recovering or Favourable, up from 52.2% in 2008/9. There is still much to do, but her team are working hard to safeguard and improve Britain’s green railways.



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