Biodiversity is the variety of all life on Earth. It includes all species of animals and plants – everything that is alive on our planet, and human survival depends upon it. Writes Tertius Beneke
The UK National Ecosystem Assessment (NEA), which was published in June 2011, demonstrates just how much nature provides for us in the UK. Caroline Spelman, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, lists many examples in Biodiversity 2020: A strategy for England’s wildlife and ecosystem services. These include “the enormous value of inland wetlands to water quality, the value of pollination to agriculture, the health benefits of experiencing nature and, not least, how nature and wildlife enrich all our lives”.
The ground breaking UK NEA is a comprehensive account of how the natural world, including its biodiversity, provides us with services that are critical to our wellbeing and economic prosperity. However, the NEA also shows that nature is consistently undervalued in decision-making and that many of the services we receive from nature are in decline. The most recent analysis shows that over 40% of priority habitats and 30% of priority species are in decline.
This is a call to arms for everyone to halt this decline – for the benefit of our and future generations. In Network Rail Infrastructure Projects (IP) we are taking some bold steps to address this challenge, seek solutions and identify a way forward to not only halt biodiversity loss, but to ensure we deliver genuine, long-term benefits for biodiversity as part of what we do.
Network Rail is the fourth largest landowner in Great Britain. It not only owns 22,000 miles of track but also over 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) of land. This connects and passes through some very unique habitats, such as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and many other statutory and locally designated nature reserves. Network Rail itself owns hundreds of protected sites which it manages in order to protect and enhance their unique attributes, whilst also balancing the need to manage an operational railway infrastructure.
In addition to sites designated for nature conservation, the extensive rail corridor provides a home to a significant number of plant and animal species. Many of these are protected by legislation and all offer a rich contribution to the biodiversity of the UK.
There are also several dedicated pieces of legislation, relevant to Network Rail, that enforce the protection of specific species and their wider habitats. For example the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006 (NERC2006) places a requirement on statutory undertakers like Network Rail to “protect and where possible enhance biodiversity.”
The wider picture
Over the last few decades, UK biodiversity has been in steady decline. Different methods and mitigation measures have been used to protect and enhance biodiversity as a part of development, but these have had varying degrees of success and a new focus is needed.
The introduction of the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) biodiversity metric gives developers an effective tool to quantify biodiversity in units. This Government issued metric is a first for the UK and allows this all-too-often poorly understood topic to be discussed much more readily within an industry context. It also enables us to set biodiversity targets such as No Net Loss or Net Positive and the ability to track progress against achieving these targets much more accurately and robustly than ever before.
At Network Rail, we are using the metric to quantify the impact that essential maintenance, renewal and infrastructure projects may have on existing habitats or species as well as quantify how much biodiversity our enhancements are creating in order to determine whether our efforts to halt biodiversity loss and deliver benefits are working.
In IP, we have taken the bold step to include a biodiversity target in our business plan that covers the next five-year Control Period “to make a measurable net positive contribution to biodiversity in the UK”. The target combines the use of the DEFRA metric to calculate biodiversity and thus measure our progress towards Net Positive as well as linking in the wider UK biodiversity agenda recognising the positive role and contribution Network Rail can have in this area.
For all the legal and moral motivators that are driving our Net Positive biodiversity agenda, it would be remiss not to mention the business benefits of enhanced biodiversity and proper habitat management.
Network Rail has developed a company standard, NR/L2/TRK/5201 Management of Lineside Vegetation. Through the creation of a structure of lineside vegetation that allows the safe operation of the railway, this allows a diversity of habitats ranging from open spaces, important for insects and pollinators, through to scrub and trees.
The implementation of this standard brings with it the opportunity to retain a diverse lineside habitat whilst, at the same time, creating or improving habitats that may be in decline. Any such work will be done sympathetically and, wherever possible, with the involvement of the local communities which live alongside the railway.
The use of the DEFRA metric will enable the existing habitat to be classified and its condition assessed. The implementation of the lineside standard, in combination with our biodiversity Net Positive target, will help to improve the resilience of the network during the changing seasons and associated storm events but with a lineside that has an improved biodiversity.
DEFRA Biodiversity calculations
In 2011 DEFRA published a technical paper proposing a metric to calculate biodiversity and transform the uniqueness, condition and amount of habitat into a comparable unit measure.
DEFRA developed this metric to inform biodiversity offsetting schemes as part of its national pilot test on offsetting. However, we in IP are not using the metric during the final stages of a project when the unavoidable loss of biodiversity requires compensation. Instead we are using the metric during the early design stages to improve our efforts to avoid impacts on biodiversity and our design of biodiversity enhancements by evaluating how many biodiversity units we will be able to enhance during the lifetime of a project.
For us it is very clear that offsetting for IP is an absolute last resort and, even then, only when we can demonstrate that the loss of biodiversity is unavoidable. There has been a great deal of controversy over recent months regarding offsetting. At Network Rail, we fully appreciate and agree with concerns surrounding offsetting and recognise that it is important for companies to understand their approach to biodiversity and be able to justify how decisions are made and on what basis, and above all strive to achieve a Net Positive.
As a standard operating procedure, IP will be applying the Biodiversity Hierarchy which strictly enforces the process that many options are first considered and implemented before offsetting becomes available for consideration. We operate within a constrained railway environment with restrictions and limitations on tree and habitat planting and recognise that, in certain situations, offsetting has a role to play in achieving a Net Positive for biodiversity. Whenever it does so, our aim is that our efforts result in local community benefits from enhanced biodiversity.
The Biodiversity Hierarchy
The Biodiversity Hierarchy is a hierarchy of decisions or options that will be applied during the management of biodiversity for IP. Our goal is to avoid impacts on biodiversity and ultimately enhance biodiversity. The further down the pyramid, the least preferred the options are from a biodiversity and IP perspective.
(The Biodiversity Hierarchy)
- Enhance – As part of the project the biodiversity in the affected area will be enhanced to achieve a measureable Net Positive;
- Avoidance – Harm to wildlife species and habitats will be avoided where possible, for example through locating on an alternative site with less harmful impacts;
- Mitigation – Where harm cannot be wholly or partially avoided, it will be minimised by design or by the use of effective mitigation measures that can be secured by, for example, conditions or planning obligations;
- Compensation – Where, despite whatever mitigation would be effective, there would still be unavoidable loss, as a last resort, this will be properly compensated for by measures to provide for a Net Positive for biodiversity.
In IP, one of our major programmes, the Thameslink Project (TLP), has already implemented the Biodiversity Hierarchy and achieved the ambitious target of “Net Positive” for biodiversity. A £6.5bn enhancement programme of one of Europe’s busiest commuter routes, TLP has led the way by delivering Network Rail’s first net positive biodiversity offset scheme. Using the metric the TLP calculated its ‘biodiversity units’ and applied the hierarchy to review measures to retain as much habitat and replant the railway corridor where possible, with offsetting as a last resort.
Collaborating with the London Wildlife Trust and Lambeth Council, TLP has created new woodland and enhanced existing woodland at Streatham Common, a nature reserve in South London. The offset achieves a net positive for TLP, enhances the reserve for wildlife and adds to the enjoyment of Streatham Common by local communities.
TLP’s biodiversity offset is being undertaken because of the drive to be a sustainable programme and has sought to establish good practice in a very new field. As such it is named by DEFRA as a UK demonstration project in recognition of how, with careful planning, offsetting can enable development to continue and deliver benefits for biodiversity.
“We follow the mitigation hierarchy and are continually improving our biodiversity work to deliver positive outcomes for both the natural environment and people,” explained Amelia Woodley, Thameslink Environment Manager.
The challenge for IP is to take this good practice forward and embed it in the rest of our projects. The goal is to not only apply this to our major programmes, such as the Network Rail Crossrail Programme which will be one of the first to take this forward, but to implement this on all of our projects. In principle, wherever a project has an impact on biodiversity or where the opportunity arises to create and or enhance biodiversity, this method will be applied.
As with any initiative, it will not happen without our people and our supply chain working with us to achieve this. So far this objective has been received very positively and we have tremendous support from our staff. On TLP the programme has established transparent policies and procedures to support its staff and has partnered with its supply chain providing training on how to achieve Net Positive.
“Engagement with our staff and supply chain has been crucial to deliver a biodiversity benefit as a legacy to the communities in which we work,” said Shane McEntee, Carillion Environment Manager.
The real work now lies ahead in applying this approach consistently, giving our people the tools and training to deliver this effectively, working with our supply chain and learning from them, as well as learning from our own experiences, and ultimately having a refined and efficient process that delivers a net positive result for biodiversity.
Tertius Beneke is principal environmental specialist with Network Rail Infrastructure Projects