Millions of trees at risk in secretive Network Rail felling programme

Millions of trees are at risk in a secretive nationwide felling operation launched by Network Rail to end the nuisance of leaves and branches falling on the line.

Thousands of poplars, sycamores, limes, ash trees and horse chestnuts have already been chopped down across the country from Yorkshire to Dorset, and the scale of the potential destruction outlined in a Network Rail blueprint involves 10m trees growing within 60 metres of track.

The company has used drones to create an aerial map of its 40,000 hectares of railway and identified “hotspots” where mature trees might cause a problem at an unspecified time in the future. Engineers are operating in a targeted felling programme that dwarfs the operation by Sheffield city council that was paused in the face of huge public protest and condemnation from the environment secretary, Michael Gove.

Over the last fortnight, people around the country have woken to the sound of chainsaws and expressed concern at the lack of consultation and the scale of the destruction.

In one incident, police in Bournemouth were called by residents to complain that engineers were operating illegally as the felling is taking place during the nesting season.

At one west London station this week, an engineer felling five mature trees said they were carrying out a “pre-emptive strike” in case branches or leaves fell on the line in future.

Ray Walton witnessed hundreds of trees being chopped down along the length of track between Christchurch and Bournemouth. “It was total mass destruction, they obliterated every tree,” he said. “These trees were mature 30-foot-high trees which have been there for 50 years in some cases and never caused a problem.

“This went far beyond reasonable management of the trees. They took them all out, and destroyed the habitat for wildlife.”

Network Rail boasts of the green corridor along its tracks as a haven for wildlife, but in London, Dorset, the Midlands and Yorkshire thousands of trees and the vegetation beneath them are being cleared, leaving habitats devastated.

James Graham, from Manchester, said he saw thousands of trees being felled last week along a 10-mile section of the trans-Pennine route from Manchester to Leeds.

“I know they have to manage the trees, but this was excessive,” he said. “It looked like some kind of logging operation. I was sitting in the train and looking out at the countryside and all you could see was mile after mile of tree stumps and sawdust. They had felled trees which were a long way from the track. It was extreme.”

In Sutton Coldfield, teams working for Network Rail have been felling hundreds of trackside trees. Elsewhere in the country, tree surgeons working for the rail firm are engaged in mass felling.

Network Rail admits the vast majority of the trees are healthy. It defended the felling, saying its new tree database of hotspot problem trees has “revolutionised” its approach to “vegetation management” to cut delays and risks to passengers from tree branches.

The company said the average tree had between 10 and 50,000 leaves, any or all of which could fall on the line.

The timing has caused increased outrage because it is taking place during nesting season – between March and August – despite promises by Network Rail that no felling would take place when birds are nesting.

Caroline Lucas, the co-leader of the Green party, said the scale of the operation was shocking and an act of environmental vandalism.

“While some tree work is required on safety grounds,” she said, “Network Rail’s approach tends to be one of slash and burn. To be taking action in the nesting season is even more reckless.”

An RSPB spokesperson said: “The worry is that much of this work is ... non-urgent work that is simply being carried out with little regard to the presence of birds and other animals.

Network Rail refused to provide the Guardian with its database of trees or reveal how many of the 10m trees identified alongside the tracks have been earmarked for felling.

Paul de Zylva, nature campaigner for Friends of the Earth, criticised the insensitive clearance of habitats.

“Rail corridors are sanctuaries for wildlife and trees can be important screening for communities,” he said. “Network Rail should be improving how it manages its land for wildlife as trees and plants are likely to be habitats for a variety of British wildlife, including nesting birds.”

Network Rail said: “Network Rail is a big, responsible, public company that takes its environmental obligations seriously. We manage our lineside to provide healthy biodiversity advised by experts in the field. We do remove tress that are, or could be dangerous, or impact on the reliability of services that serve over 4.5m people everyday.

“We make our policies in this area public, in an open and transparent

way and work with environmental organisations to help us get it right when we do have to take action.”

On its website , it said the tree felling was part of its Orbis (Offering Rail Better Information Service) programme and was saving the taxpayer thousands of pounds in repair and clean-up costs and reducing the likelihood of a train colliding with a fallen tree or branch.

• This article was amended on 1 May 2018 to make clear that Sheffield city council’s tree-felling programme had been paused rather than permanently halted.

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