Poor planting rates
Woodland creation rates in the UK are painfully low. According to Forestry Commission statistics, just 1100 hectares of new woodland were created in England last year. Things are slightly better in Scotland, but even across the UK as a whole the sum of activity amounted to around 7000 new hectares, a fraction of what is needed if we are to see the Government’s stated ambition of 15% woodland cover by 2060.
The woodland area along Network Rail’s tracks is significant in this context. To take the extreme case – which is unlikely to ever happen but serves well to illustrate the point – if all 13 million trees identified in Network Rail’s mapping exercise were felled, it would be the equivalent of the loss of at least 9000 hectares of woodland.
Under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), the UK is signatory to a commitment to end deforestation. Network Rail, according to the Guardian, has no intention to replace the felled trees. It has statutory power to remove trees but no legal compulsion to replace them.
Unfortunately, that’s the law.
Recognising the value of the linear forest
But what about the CBD? Doesn’t the Government have a commitment to – at the very least – ensure that as much new woodland is created as is lost? When one of its own agencies is removing trees, shouldn’t another be replacing them? Should Network Rail not be required to do all they can to ensure a retain-and-management-first approach is taken, rather than focus activity on clearances?
The ecological value of these trees must not be ignored. Network Rail’s lineside trees might be an unintended consequence of nature, but they still form woods for wildlife. What’s more, their linear nature makes them a corridor for wildlife, connecting north to south and allowing species freedom to move in an otherwise hostile landscape.
As an alternative to the current lineside management technique of chemically killing tree stumps, one (cheaper) option would simply be to leave them. Some would undoubtedly form coppice stools, providing valuable scrubby habitat on, say, a fifteen year cycle of management. In the meantime of course, nothing would get large enough to cause health and safety issues.
Britain’s railway lines are a highly visible indication of the way we treat our wildlife. Network Rail has a massive opportunity to show how trees can be valued as an asset rather than treated as a costly, inconvenient overhead.
We plan to make these points to them.