Here is a lesson in the power of activism to deliver change.  This week, Network Rail was forced to suspend their rail-side clearance operations during the bird breeding season thanks to the actions of a local resident.  Below, my colleague Tony Whitehead (Communications Manager for the RSPB in the South West) tells the story which highlights what can happen when good people use their voice for nature.  


For the past twenty years we have received hundreds of calls from all over the UK from concerned residents who have faced inappropriate rail-side vegetation clearance by Network Rail during the bird breeding season, on many occasions we have sprung to action informing the British Transport Wildlife Police and works have been stopped but not after considerable efforts by all concerned.

It was great earlier this week to be consulted directly by staff acting for the Minister of Transport, Jo Johnson, who had equally become concerned.

The concern, in part, had been prompted by press coverage of a particular issue in the sunny seaside town of Bournemouth, where local resident Ray Walton had, in his own words become “distraught” watching a team from Network Rail chop down dozens of trees near his house and more so when he discovered that this was happening all over the UK. 

I heard the noise of the chainsaws on the railway tracks behind my house this April. Running towards the sound I saw a group of men chopping down tree after tree, leaving nothing but tree stumps and wood chippings in their wake. Shockingly, this is taking place during spring nesting season when nesting birds are protected by the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside act. Either they are destroying nests, or they are chopping down the trees before the birds have a chance to nest - which is hardly any better.

Ray contacted the RSPB’s Regional Office in the South West, and the local paper. We responded, providing supportive quotes, our hearts sinking yet again at another case of wanton destruction of nesting habitat in the nesting season. We also contacted the British Transport Police. Ray in the meantime took things further, starting a petition to “Stop Network Rail Chopping Down Millions of Trees!”.  This clearly struck a chord, and today the number signed up stands at c66,000.

With all this interest, the story was picked up by the Guardian, who ran a piece, quoting Ray and detailing a number of other similar incidents, all involving the destruction of nesting habitat during the breeding season, and then attempting to detail the scale of the operation, both now and into the future. This brought the matter directly to the tables of both Defra and Department for Transport who in turn responded by calling on Network Rail to suspend its operations this season, and to review its work.   

To say the least we were delighted! It demonstrated to us, once again, the power of individuals and communities standing up for nature where they live and, with the support of organisations such as ours, making a real difference. 

The RSPB completely recognises the need for management of vegetation, especially if it's emergency work for urgent safety reasons. And we also recognise that judicious management of trees through selective felling and thinning can provide a habitat mix that is good for wildlife.  But our call is, please, if it’s not an emergency, simply don’t do it during the breeding season when birds are nesting. Also, alongside minimizing harm, we’d call on National Rail to go further and maximise the value of their considerable land holding for wildlife.

  • The way Network Rail manage their line-sides is very strategic. They could be so fabulous as habitat corridors (cf Lawson's 'bigger, better, better-connected') but they are often very poorly managed. Is there an overall plan to make them the best habitats they could be? They could be very significant. Removing invasive species (e.g. laurel) needs to be part of it. And your photograph shows the awful opportunities they make for graffiti: vandals don't bother to spray graffiti on fences no-one can see. See the line-sides SW of Clapham Junction for an appalling example following an autumn clear-fell.