Published on 10 Apr 2015

Could Network Rail be breaching law by cutting down trees?

Network Rail stands accused of ignoring laws designed to protect wildlife as it battles to clear hundreds of thousands of trees which line the network.

Channel 4 News has filmed Network Rail contractors clearing woods at the side of the railway during bird nesting season – something which conservation groups warn could be a breach of the law.

The company, which says it aims to conduct tree clearance work outside of the bird nesting season, claims that rail side woodland is carefully inspected for birds’ nests before trees are felled.

The criticism comes as the company which manages Britain’s railway network carries out a nationwide programme of tree and vegetation clearance to avoid weather-related delays. Following the St Jude Storm in the winter of 2013/14 there were 1500 incidents involving trees or branches falling on to tracks.

Network Rail has faced criticism and threats of legal action before after clearing trees and shrubs from the railway during bird nesting season – which runs from mid-March to August. On its website Network Rail says: “We avoid work at times that will cause harm to, or disturb, nesting birds unless there is a significant and immediate threat to passenger or resident safety.”

However we witnessed contractors for the company with chainsaws carrying out work clearing woods at Sonning Cutting in Berkshire on 7 April –  well into the nesting season.

“It’s an offence to disturb or destroy an active bird’s nest,” said Mark Thomas, senior investigations officer with the RSPB. “The last thing we need is for nests to be destroyed or damaged by people doing trackside maintenance – work which can be done in the autumn or winter.”

Further north on the network, near the village of Stone in Staffordshire, the British Transport Police intervened when residents complained of trees being felled that contained active birds’ nests. Network Rail has since suspended activities on that section of the line.

In a statement Network Rail told Channel 4 News “It is a delicate balance of our obligations to keep passengers safe and our responsibilities to our neighbours and wildlife living trackside.”

The company went on to say the team we witnessed working at Sonning Cutting were “tidying up” after work completed the week before. It added: “During bird nesting season we undertake daily assessments placing exclusion zones around any areas where there is evidence of nesting.” Work does not recommence until all that evidence has gone.

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23 reader comments

  1. rob says:

    well to be honest unless you want trains to stop running on certain routes they have no choice but to cut down some trees and clear veg

  2. Ian H says:

    Network Rail were out with chainsaws doing this 2 weeks ago, in the railway cutting behind my house here in sunny Hove. Had a good view of their activities out of the kitchen window, and knowing the law was somewhat surprised. Its a real “wildlife corridor”, and there are birds nesting there.

  3. Sally Stephens says:

    Brutal tree work has taken place this week alongside the track at Barnes Bridge station this week – the tree at nearest my garden is being threatened on Monday and there are definitely birds nesting in the trees. I appreciate some of the trees are rotten but the work appears to exceed what would be required to ensure safety and no care has been taken to preserve other non-threatening laurel bushes that had previously been planted near the trees.

  4. William says:

    If a tree is 12ft tall and is growing about 12ft (accounting a few feet for slippage) from the track, then who would argue with some trimming. However, even small trees and bushes far back from the track have been obliterated. This isn’t gardening it’s demolition.

    Your article focuses on the law concerning birds but how does the law protect endangered butterflies, beetles, insects and other creatures?

  5. Cathy Kitchen says:

    Bird nesting season is a relevant point but there is a larger issue with the mass clearance of vegetation shown on BBC…the lost of insect life that sustains bird populations throughout the year, loss of trees for Climate Change prevention etc etc
    The extent of clearance near the rail tracts far exceeds the necessary ‘delicate ‘ balance’ and surely only ‘risk’ areas should be targeted not wholesale destruction.

    Network Rail won’t get my custom if this continues to be their practice.

  6. Lynne Aldridge says:

    Still going on along the Hertford line in North London. Huge mature trees destroyed. Owl and bat roosts gone forever. Removing tree and shrub cover leads to soil voids as roots die, potentially causing landslips, a far more dangerous prospect that a leaf or two on the line.

  7. Philip says:

    We’ve had a lot of this locally & when I complained I was told that Network rail puts money into conservation schemes elsewhere. (I was tempted to reply that would it be OK if I slapped a child of his for annoying me & then out £50 into the NSPCC, but didn’t). However, nature appears to have won in our area as the trees & bushes have regrown in 2 years in rather greater abundance than previously. But anyone who removes the home of nesting birds & destroys the micro-environment should be prosecuted. Perhaps whoever ordered this could be moved out of their house at a moment’s notice & required to sleep rough for a fortnight?

  8. Tina says:

    Network Rail (I presume) are cutting trees down around Surbiton. From the back of my flats I used to be protected from the noise and sights of trains because of the trees. Before, I made the BIG decision to offer on my flat, and subsequently move in I assessed the sound levels of trains, and concluded the Trees protected me so all was okay! As I type they are sawing down the trees and I can see big gaping spaces where trees once stood. I am not sure when the Tree cutting job is done….. if I would draw the same conclusion as before, and move in again. I will be trying to follow-up on this – anyone got any ideas what to do?….I mean, will they plant shrubs back in the place of trees…I doubt it? Residents have no say… and this blanket decision will affect my lifestyle forever.

    1. Damian says:

      Hi Tina, the same has just happened to us. We always thought that the trees compensated for the railway being there.
      Have you got anywhere with your enquiry?
      Thanks.

  9. Emma says:

    It does look barbaric and shocking especially when you live so close to it all. I agree wildlife, birds and our lovely old trees need protection. However there are a few things that need to be taken into consideration with this piece of reporting.
    1. These guys are not allowed to be filmed, that is why he and the rest of the gang stopped work. It is an offence to take film or images on the railway. This was reported in such a way that made the gang look like they were doing something wrong.
    2. I know for a fact that they are very careful of nesting birds and do stop, move away and restrict / stop cutting in nesting season – you say this gang was clearing up after previous felling – yes correct, tidying up… its a big and time consuming part of the overall job.
    3. Tree surgeons who form an integral part of these gangs are by nature usually environmentally aware and care about what they are doing and the environment in which they are in – yes there may be the odd rogue but on the whole they would not destroy nests or undertake unnecessary measures.
    4. Look at images of the same area from the 1950’s, not a tree in sight.
    5. By removing or working on the trees means that other wildlife gets the chance to grow and thrive, previously been blocked by the canopy of the trees – its spring and growth is about to burst out everywhere – giving way for insects, butterflies, bees etc to excel along our railways. A lot of trees self seed and those cut back grow again.
    6. What if they didn’t carry out this work leading to a huge accident – loss of human life? there would be no excuse for not doing this work then and it would be too late, please see the whole story and not just the spin

  10. K says:

    It’s all work which has to be carried out!! If a tree fell and de railed a train killing lots of people I’m sure you would all kick up a stink saying why are you not cutting the bloody trees. Most of the vegetation will re grow anyway.
    If you don’t like seeing or hearing the railway then you can always relocate to a rail free area.

  11. Cat says:

    From Surbiton to Beryland the trees on this steep embankment have been felled leaving a few feet of tree cover at the top. At first I thought it was to remove dead or diseased trees which is fine but it has continued relentlessly with healthy trees being removed with scrub and saplings. The tres at the top seem to have been left whatever their condition which makes it look like some idiot policy using a measuring tape – cut back a certain distance from the track regardless and no environmentally tree surgeon in sight. Yes, unsafe trees and branches require removal but the tree roots will have stabilised the banks which will now be prone if to land slippage on to the line they are trying to protect. Have we learnt nothing and is no one prepared to explain the policy?

  12. Darren says:

    Is there anyone out thee knows if there any law to cutting down trees that have been there for over 50 yrs . The railway near where we live is in a very small village and the line was hidden mostly by trees now it looks terrible as it’s open for all to see and easy access for any one to get to trains are loader and reed bunting and owl nest ing area is no more is there any thing we can do its a nightmare now

  13. Steve Wilcox says:

    At 3am on 18th June 2015 we were woken by the sound of chainsaws mulching machines and bright lights.All this activity until after 4 am was happening outside Knutsford railway station in Cheshire. 15 trees were felled on the embankment. Totally inconsiderate to local community nearly a whole night sleep lost
    Is this legal?

  14. Shelley barton says:

    Who is responsible for cutting back a 50ft tree at the back of the garden which is not only letting out daylight it is causing damage in an already a small space with the. Rail track other side of the fence(as so is the tree)?

  15. John Rossetti says:

    Just wait until we get heavy rainfall again The trains will stop anyway due to the embankments collapsing. Dont NR care that trees stabilize the ground. (An estimated 350,000 tonnes of earth slipped at Harbury Tunnel) the railway closed for months, there were no trees.
    Why is this only going on in the UK ? many countries overseas don’t chop their trees down. I suppose it’s cheaper than MANAGING them.

  16. Alan Keeney says:

    We have been trying to stop the total destruction of trees I out area . Network rail have been working day and night shift all week . No notice given to residence. What is the transport minister doing about it NOTHING it’s a total discrase. Only in this country would a government not give a dam

  17. steve collier says:

    About 18 months ago the chainsaw gangs made nightly visits and destroyed every tree, bush. scrub regardless of wildlife habits. These work teams vandals didn’t give a darn. We hardly see any birds anymore. Without those beautiful trees our area doesn’t seem the same. and for what? the electrification of the line is still not completed…..But why bother when they’ve got no newly equipped trains to run them on. Now I’ve just received a letter from NR informing me that they are paying a return visit……. let’s be honest, NR couldn’t run a **** up in a brewery.

  18. Mrs payne says:

    We live close to the railway track that has been vandalised by tree cutters this spring time. Not only does it look completely awful but we have noticed a dramatic decrease in the population of wildlife, for example this is the first year in over twenty years we have not heard a cuckoo calling close by. Also we have not had our regular visits from the woodpeckers. We are convinced that the now lack of wildlife habitat is to blame. The birds and other creature have nowhere to go. Shame on Network Rail for taking a far too drastic action just to save themselves money at the end of the day, without thinking about the consequences to our precious wildlife.

  19. Wayne Porter says:

    Does network rail actually give a dam about countryside rules and regulations, it clearly states trees and hedges should not be disturbed between March-August, unless its an emergency.
    Well yet again no emergency in sight yet more trees and hedges being ripped out, at this moment between Boston and Sibsey, seems no governing body can be bothered to say a word to them, as per usual with this country, one rule for little man one rule for big corporation,
    Its about time somebody made network rail accountable for there actions, but then probably to many backhanders flying around to keep certyain people sweat

  20. Sue Dot says:

    Travelled to Honiton by train last Weds 8th June. Saw the destruction along the railway line; noticed a bird fluttering amongst all the sawdust in its death throes. Very upsetting.

  21. Linda Griffiths says:

    We too have been shocked and distressed by mature trees being cut down (not pruned) meaning our wildlife has nowhere to hide. Foxes stayed at the back with their cubs each year but now sit amongst the logs left behind! An owl which has been here for years has not returned. Now I am woken each morning by the windows rattling as the trains go by. We have lived here for 25 years and never had noise like this before. We feel as though we have had no say at all nor is there anyone to complain to who will actually listen.
    Network Rail should be ashamed!

  22. mark rigby says:

    Work by netwrok rail was start ed at the end of July (within the ective nesting season) to clear trees for a project of electrification in Tameside. They are cleariung a complete area within their boundary which contains trees but more than necessary for the area needed for the project. This tree area they are clearing is part of a wooded area spreading much wider. These guys have no care in the world as we were told they should have started 2 months ago.

    We have been successful in obstructively delaying their plans, but as we also see bats in this area I am sure I will get a negative response when I ask to see their bat survey. Lots of wooded areas also contain bats and all species are fully protected by UK and European laws. This is not governed by nesting season but anywhere where they are roosting.

    I bet Network Rail don’t even consider this, as they just steam roll their way where ever they want without concern for anyone or anything because its their land. Our ecological system is very important

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