Of all the landscapes from our industrial past, abandoned and disused railways are the perfect places to explore a wealth of wildlife. There are hundreds of secret, forgotten railways which have fallen out of use by people and have since been reclaimed by nature. They are now wildlife highways, bursting with wildflowers, butterflies and birds, just waiting to be discovered.

Since becoming disused, some of these sites have been rich enough to be designated as Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC), Local Nature Reserves (LNR) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) due to their impressive biodiversity.

All over the country, local wildlife trusts and friends groups protect old railway sites, for nature and for people to enjoy. The London Wildlife Trust manages the Gunnersbury Triangle LNR, Sydenham Hill Wood, bisected by the short-lived Crystal Palace High-level line which served the Great Exhibition of 1851, and Denham Lock Wood and Frays Farm Meadows SSSI which have taken over a barely-used track that was to connect Uxbridge and West Drayton.

Varied habitats

In north-west London, Mill Hill Old Railway was opened in April 1872 as a single track to Edgware, and plans were made in the late 1930s to double the track and electrify the line. Although some of this work was started, the Second World War led to the line being abandoned which, with the subsequent extension of the M1 motorway, contributed to its closure in June 1964. The site was acquired by London Wildlife Trust under lease from Barnet Council.

Today, the resulting nature reserve has developed vegetation typical of old railways – a mixture of recent woodland and scrub with grassy glades. A mosaic of gardens back onto the reserve, providing good habitat for suburban birds, including sparrowhawk, green and great spotted woodpecker, long-tailed tit, chiffchaff and blackcap. Butterflies, moths and other invertebrates such as orange-tip, small copper and hoverflies are also common. The reserve also has a population of slow-worms.

Halwill Junction in Devon was once a bustling and important stop on the Great Western Railway (GWR) as the meeting point of four separate lines. The line was closed in 1966 and the land was sold by British Rail to the Devon Wildlife Trust in 1990.

Over recent years, the old railway track has been converted into a surfaced cycle path connecting Halwill Junction to Cookworthy Forest, while the reserve itself has become a wildlife sanctuary. Various physical and geological conditions have combined to produce a range of plant communities. Goat willow predominates on the railway line edges but birch, alder, rowan and gorse are also present. The site is also home to the uncommon broad-leaved helleborine.

In the wetter areas a good display of southern marsh orchids can be seen in July. On the dry areas, heather, mosses and lichens have made a home.

Other wildlife highlights include barn owls, which forage for the abundant voles and mice along the wildlife canyon.

Grasslands and marshes

Sewell Cutting, in Bedfordshire, is home to a tranquil, flower-rich reserve that has been created within the cutting of the long-since disused railway, now owned by Central Bedfordshire Council. Where once steam trains rumbled along, the site has developed into a magical place for chalk grassland flowers. The steep banks of the cutting provide a contrasting sunny south-facing slope, and a more sheltered north-facing bank, allowing for contrasting communities of flowers and grasses. In summer the scorched south-facing slope is home to deep-rooted plants such as hawkweeds, scabious and knapweed while the north-facing slope is lush with grasses. Blocks of scrub have developed, including guelder rose, a stately berry-forming hedgerow shrub. A large number of butterflies are found here – dingy skipper and small, common and chalkhill blue in spring, followed by marbled white in summer.

Teifi Marshes straddle what was once a GWR line in West Wales, running 14.5 miles between Whitland on the West Wales Line and Cardigan. The line closed to passenger traffic in September 1962, although the tracks remained in use by freight traffic for a while until its final closure in May 1963.

The track was lifted completely by the end of 1964. The route of this old line can be now enjoyed as a circular walk that surrounds the marshes and includes six hides as well as two woodland walks. The old railway line runs past the Welsh Wildlife Centre before descending down through the marsh. Today, Teifi Marshes is owned by the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales and bisects the old line, bringing a wealth of wildlife to the scene. A range of habitats is to be found here, from open pasture and well-wooded hedgerows, through alder and willow carr, freshwater marsh with open pools and reed-beds, to tidal mud-banks. Flooding is extensive in winter, attracting large numbers of overwintering wildfowl, most often teal, wigeon and mallard.

The scarce water rail is present in winter in good numbers and other regular winter visitors include snipe, curlew and lapwing. Peregrine falcon can be seen hunting over the marshes. Breeding birds include reed, sedge and Cetti’s warblers, whitethroats, shelduck and moorhen.

Otters and mink are present in the marshes, water shrews are numerous, and sika and red deer graze here. Fish species include lamprey, stickleback, eel, sewin and salmon. Frogs and toads are numerous and grass snakes and adders are present on the reserve. The rich assemblage of dragonflies includes emperor, broad-bodied chaser, and southern hawker.

Rich abundance

Bishop Monkton Railway Cutting is a small haven for wildlife, tucked away within an intensively agricultural landscape. Sitting on the now-disused London and North Eastern Railway line, a part of the Harrogate to Ripon line branch, this section became disused in 1967 and is now managed by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust volunteers.

Once the railway went out of use nature began to take the site over, with flourishing wildflowers and the gradual establishment of trees and scrub around the boundaries of the site. The magnesian limestone bedrock provides the perfect conditions for a rich abundance of wildflowers within an area of increasingly rare, unimproved neutral and calcareous grassland, supporting a good range of plants, including cowslip, common spotted orchid, wild marjoram, ox-eye daisy, bird’s-foot trefoil, lady’s mantle, salad burnet and St John’s Wort. These create an attractive swathe of colour in May, June and early July.

Before 1967, when the line was still in use, there was a small hut for the railway workers complete with a garden, plants from which still survive today. Whilst not native, these plants do provide an additional food source for insects and give an insight into the site’s past.

Along with other relics of our industrial past, such as quarries, pits and mines, abandoned railways offer fascinating wildlife opportunities for all to enjoy.

Written by Melanie Oxley