Press release

Greener transport network to provide highways for wildlife

Roads and railways will become better-suited to wildlife and withstanding climate change under a project by Natural England and partners.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government


Flowery bank © Natural England, Peter Wakely

The areas of vegetation growing alongside the transport network, known as “green corridors”, are to be enhanced as part of a £3 million pilot project drawing together Natural England, the Highways Agency, Network Rail and Nature Improvement Area (NIA) partnerships. It will ensure that these green corridors can accommodate more wildlife – especially pollinators – and enable greater movement between sites.

For the first time, this type of conservation work will not only focus on improving conditions for plants, animals and insects, it will also benefit transport users and the wider public by making infrastructure more resilient to the growing impacts of climate change, such as increased flooding and winter storms. In addition, it will help to tackle the perennial problem of “leaves on the line” and, in the right areas, open up views for rail passengers and motorists.

The pilot is a product of the government’s Natural Environment White Paper in 2011 which pledged to bring together transport and conservation partners in the “creation of coherent and resilient ecological networks”.

It will focus on the NIAs in Morecambe Bay, between Cumbria and Lancashire, and the Humberhead Levels, straddling Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. If the 3-year pilot is successful it could usher in a similar approach across the country. The rail network has 32,000 km (20,000 miles) of green corridors, also known as the “soft estate”, while the Highways Agency has 30,000 hectares of land in addition to the extensive road infrastructure managed by local authorities. Other linear infrastructure such as canals, cycleways and power lines could also benefit.

The project is based on the findings of a literature review, carried out by ADAS UK Ltd, looking at research into transport green corridors across the UK and Europe. These were used to map out the locations best suited to conservation management and improving resilience in the 2 pilot areas.

The aims of the pilot are:

  • to establish species-rich grass verges and selective coppicing to promote the growth of plant and pollinator species such as bees, supporting the government’s National Pollinator Strategy (this could also reduce hazards associated with tree and leaf fall)

  • to create a greater variety of habitats on transport’s soft estate to encourage more wildlife to live in and travel along the corridors

  • to tailor the design of roadside habitats to reduce the risk of accidents caused by wildlife emerging unseen directly onto the carriageway

  • to create wetland swales and ponds on land in or near the soft estate which can store carbon dioxide emissions, provide wildlife habitat and improve the quality and drainage of water, reducing the likelihood of flooding on the transport network

The Environment Secretary, Elizabeth Truss, said:

These verges provide really important habitats for our precious wildlife, with benefits for people, businesses, and the wider environment.

This project will make these areas better than ever, helping our vital pollinators by providing a home and food for them to thrive, as well as improving the weather resilience of our transport infrastructure which will boost our economy.

Natural England’s Chairman, Andrew Sells, said:

Our transport infrastructure is already home to some of the country’s best-loved wildlife. But this strategy shows how it could become even better integrated and provide even more benefits to our wildlife, transport users and people who rely on these important corridors.

I hope this pilot project will point the way to a greener, more resilient transport network that connects not just people but the whole spectrum of England’s wildlife.

Dr Neil Strong, Network Rail’s sustainable land specialist, said:

Britain’s railways help move millions of people and thousands of tonnes of freight every day, which is why Network Rail is working hard to improve the resilience of the network to the impact of weather and climate change. The storms we experienced last autumn and winter only served to underline the importance of this work.

Together with Natural England and other landowners, we are identifying locations where mitigation measures can help improve both the resilience of the network and increase our contribution to Britain’s biodiversity.

Tony Sangwine, senior principal environmental adviser at the Highways Agency, said:

We own a highway estate that extends to 30,000 hectares - roughly the size of the Isle of Wight and stretching from Cornwall to Cumbria. It forms a series of green corridors that both buffer the road from the adjoining countryside and communities and can provide benefits to wildlife whilst helping to moderate the effects of extreme weather events and some pollutants.

We wish to make this valuable asset of greater benefit in the Nature Improvement Areas as ecological corridors for wildlife, enhance the local landscape, biodiversity, the creation of green corridors for wildlife, road users, communities and improving the appearance and amenity of the highway estate for all.


Nature Improvement Areas

Set up in 2012, NIAs are three-year projects first announced in the Natural Environment White Paper with the aim of creating 12 initial areas to restore, enhance and connect wildlife habitats on a significant scale through local partnerships.

Morecambe Bay Limestones and Wetlands

The Morecambe Bay Limestones and Wetlands in northwest England has a unique combination of limestone and wetland habitats, supporting exceptional populations of birds, flowers and butterflies. The NIA seeks to re-instate management across large areas of limestone ancient woodland sites, work towards restoring the area’s peat-rich lowland raised bogs, creating wet grassland perfect for breeding waders and negotiating grazing management plans for limestone grassland sites famous for orchids and other wildflowers. The aim is to create ‘stepping stones’ between high quality sites, providing an ecological network that is resilient to climate change. Species benefiting include bitterns, Mason bees and high brown fritillary butterflies.

Humberhead Levels

The Humberhead Levels Nature Improvement Area is part of the vast flatlands straddling the borders of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. Covering 49,700 hectares, it comprises wetland habitats interspersed within some of the most productive arable land in the UK, mostly below sea-level and vulnerable to climate change effects. Novel approaches are needed to accommodate some of our rarest wildlife in that complex landscape. The site supports 5,000 species of plants and animals of which more than 4,000 are insects. These include adder and overwintering bird species such as whooper swans, pink-footed geese and short-eared owls.

Published 23 December 2014