Wildlife superhighways

Short-eared Owl can be found overwintering on Humberhead Levels most years. Photo: Bex Ross (commons.wikimedia.org).
Short-eared Owl can be found overwintering on Humberhead Levels most years. Photo: Bex Ross (commons.wikimedia.org).
Roadsides and railway embankments are to be upgraded with the help of Natural England to keep wildlife populations mobile.

The areas of vegetation growing alongside Britain's transport network are known as 'green corridors', and 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. This will ensure that these green corridors can accommodate more wildlife – especially our declining pollinators – and enable greater movement of species between sites.

For the first time, not only will conditions be improved for plants and animals, it will also benefit businesses and the public by making the transport 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 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 20,000 miles of green corridors, while the Highways Agency has 30,000 ha 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 aims of the pilot are:

• to establish species-rich grass verges 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 variety of habitats on transport’s 'soft estate' and encourage more wildlife
• to tailor the design of roadside habitats to reduce the risk of accidents caused by wildlife emerging unseen directly onto the carriageway
• to create wetlands in or near the soft estate to store carbon dioxide emissions, provide habitat and improve the drainage of water, reducing the likelihood of flooding

The Environment Secretary, Elizabeth Truss, said: "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."