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  • Writer's pictureAnne Jennings

Walk on the Wild Side

Updated: Jun 17, 2020

‘Where the Wild Things Are' was not meant to please everybody – only children. A letter from a seven-year-old boy encourages me to think that I have reached children as I had hoped. He wrote: ‘How much does it cost to get to where the wild things are? If it is not expensive my sister and I want to spend the summer there…….’

Maurice Sendak

Author - Where the Wild Things Are

Two weeks ago, all through the night and into the morning came the sounds of cutting, grinding and chipping.

A few months back there had been notification of clearance work to be carried out to the railway embankments that run along the back of our gardens. Covid-19 had delayed the works into nesting season and for this reason, and others, local residents rose the next morning tired from a lack of sleep and anxious about what was happening.

We peered as far as possible over the railings, through shrubbery to the bank on the opposite side where work had begun. Anxieties were reinforced by the total clearance of vegetation except for a row of sycamore, sessile oak and ash which had been left along the top of the bank, but these had worrying blue crosses painted on the trunks.

These embankments are valuable habitats and wildlife corridors, relatively undisturbed by humans and only sporadically rattled by passing trains, and this absolute blitzing seemed extreme. Instinct is to leave the wild for the wild creatures.

Lovely neighbour rang the appropriate number and waited for the call back – what would the extent of the work be, how much more was to be cleared, what about the nesting birds? And more.

We were impressed to find out that a hugely experienced arboriculturalist and estate manager had been appointed project supervisor for these works which are, to some extent, experimental. A long-term plan for the management of the neglected land running aside miles of the railway line will be implemented, with the aim of improving and creating habitats and increasing flora and fauna species - as well, of course, as ensuring rail safety and efficiency (leaves on the line et al). The hope is that this will set the model for a nationwide regeneration programme of these wild corridors.

We met our now-favourite tree expert in the rail car park a few days later. Immediately he pointed out a failing pine tree along a row of mature specimens where, to our delight, a little - but very noisy - head appeared intermittently from the trunk. A baby woodpecker. As soon as we moved away mum moved in to provide food which silenced the fledgling for maybe 10 seconds before the clamouring call returned.

For the next two hours our adopted leader walked us along rail platforms and rushed us on and off near empty trains, suitably drenched in sanitiser, and revealed more about work to date and more to come.

With our new-found knowledge, dead standing trees were no longer eyesores but sentinels providing habitats and food sources for birds and insects. Cut timber no longer viewed as rubbish awaiting removal from site but as habitat piles, with a strong focus on stag beetles. Trees marked for future felling all had a reason, a back story – ash that would soon succumb to die back, sycamore that had self-seeded and intruded on better neighbours, and poor specimens that were currently supporting nesting birds.

The most severe clearance had taken place along the 6.5 metre stretch of land immediately adjacent to the lines to ensure no overhanging vegetation could cause a hazard or delay to trains.

But there is a plan for these spaces which will form the first band of a

graded transition from grasses and wildflowers through lower storey shrubs such as elder and buddleia, onto mid-storey trees, newly introduced where possible – apple, hawthorn, sloe. Finally, where viable, mature specimens of large trees will be maintained and, with a focus on oak, new saplings planted.

These frontline plantings will rarely be sown with new wildflowers but instead left to allow dormant and bird-introduced seeds to germinate. From November’s clearance we saw comfrey, aquilegia, foxglove, burdock and teasel already flowering.

As in my own garden, a period of neglect will often necessitate some pretty harsh regeneration work prior to a proper habitat management plan being implemented, and we are currently experiencing the broken egg before omelette-making scenario. Certainly, some residents will lose out on mature tree cover, at least in the short to medium term, and some habitats will unavoidably be damaged, perhaps for a season.

On the whole, we were inspired and comforted by this trip out (my first since lockdown began), and certainly confident in the knowledge, vision and commitment of our guide.

This blog celebrates and waves a flag for the initiative and aims to encourage the rail authorities to implement and continue these plans along our entire rail network.

Even the wild needs a little management to enrich and protect its existence.

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