Nature Between the Fences
As the seasons change, the flora and fauna between the railway's fences adapt to survive, grow or reproduce. Each season this page, written by a knowledgeable member of the railway's Lineside Clearance Team, will tell you what you might see between the fences while travelling on the train, if you look carefully.
Lineside Clearance Team Diary - Autumn through to Winter
“The sun shone, the fields were green, and the birds sang”, or so wrote the Rev. W Awdry many years ago. We of the Lineside Clearance team appreciate these sentiments as we are out and about at least twice a week clearing vegetation so that railway travellers can see the fields and pause only in nesting season so that the birds can do their thing undisturbed. The railway is a unique environment - its effectively a 15-mile-long nature reserve. We are the custodians of this reserve and throughout the seasons we enjoy the changing environment for which we care.
There are safety and legislative reasons for our work as well; we do not want trees close to the line falling on the rails or interfering with heads stuck out of carriage windows. The Office for Rail Regulation (ORR) wants us to keep trees 5 metres back from our running rails, again to keep trains safe.
We may seem to you like a team of humanoids in garish dress, gathering for their strange rituals around a blazing bonfire, as we have to cease work and wave when a train passes, so that the crew driving know it is safe to pass. So we do work hard, but just not while you are watching!
Autumn brings with it a slippery problem - that of leaves and we see many shapes and sizes. The season is a time to clear leaves from track equipment and ensure it functions and to also allow all signals, signs and crossings to be visible by train crews. Look out for the tall pines that used to be a visible sign of a station for anyone in days gone by before sat-navs; these were planted at many of our stations but have now grown too tall and have had to be removed or lopped to guard against being blown down. At the other end of the size scale, autumn means the appearance of holly berries and rose-hips, giving our lineside some red colouring. Pink and red campion is still around and look out for kestrels and kites flying over searching for food. As the leaves fall and we thin out the bushes there is less lineside cover for their prey.
The most common tree trackside is probably the ash, suffering from die-back nationally, but able to grow quickly and lush at the drop of a seed. Beech is another regular, with elder and blackthorn also thriving. Rosebay willowherb (purple flowers and long slender leaves) is the most common plant along the tracks. Conversely, we have even identified a Japanese willow at the Greet tunnel entrance although the trunks had to be cut down to open up the wingwalls. The root ball is still in situ and we are sure in time that it will grow back and can be better managed. Tree roots are left in situ for the many mammals to nest in during the winter months. In winter trees can be identified by their shape and fruit, so bring your books!
If you look carefully, you may see many wild animals that patrol our line including deer, badgers, foxes and rabbits. We also entertain protected species along the line such as bats and great crested newts. Privet hawk moth caterpillars charge across the track with a blatant disregard for all track safety procedures! Common lizards have been spotted sunning themselves even into October.
Cute domestic cats like to hunt along the lineside and from the train you can see several stable yards, so the variety and size of creatures is vast. When we do uncover a badger sett, it has to be dealt with appropriately. Badgers can do untold damage to a railway embankment and as safety of passengers is a priority, the badger families must be re-located. This is done in conjunction with specialists and ecology observers by netting an exposed sett, placing one-way (exit only) trap doors over the entrances, capturing the badgers and relocating them as a group. The sett can then be exposed, back-filled to restore the embankment’s integrity and the netting replaced to discourage further digging. Rabbits can be cute and furry, but again are not too welcome and are removed again with humane and specialist help. We remove lineside brush at key points like the wing-walls of the tunnel and bridges to expose rabbit activity again to protect our structures.
Although we clear these parts and it can look quite inviting to climb up to a bridge, please do not do so – the railway can be a dangerous place and believe it or not, trains can creep up on you. We all wear high-vis orange gear to ensure train crews can see us at a distance, so do wave if you see us, but do not follow us onto the track. We have all had specialist training to work here. We like to see all our visitors and animal friends go home safely at the end of the day.
Dr. Ian S Pogson CEng FIET
Lineside Clearance Team