Project highlights

  • This project will generate new knowledge of the functional role of the UK rail network in
    enabling the movement of animals through the landscape;
  • The project is interdisciplinary applying a range of innovative and state-of-the-art tracking
    technologies and deep learning analytical techniques to investigate the movement ecology
    of a range of species;
  • Working in partnership with Network Rail, the findings will support the management of the
    rail network to improve functional connectivity of landscapes to mitigate the impacts of
    habitat fragmentation and climate change.

Overview

Britain’s rail network is extensive (52,000ha of land, 32,000km of track) and comprises a diverse
mosaic of habitats: including urban (41%), arable (21%), productive grassland (17%) and woodland
(15%). These provide refuges for diverse floral and faunal communities, including many rare species.
Recent analysis by UKCEH highlighted the potential role of the network in connecting woodland
habitats (Fig. 1; Pywell et al. 2020). The Biodiversity Action Plan for the railway makes a commitment
to managing the network to enhance its role in improving habitat connectivity. Many ecological
concepts (e.g. metapopulations, patch-matrix models) predict that species occurrence is a function
of habitat location, quality, matrix structure and the presence of linking habitats (or corridors).
Studies of linear features in cities have indicated the importance of tree networks for dispersal of
bats (Hale et al., 2012) and juvenile birds (Rosenfeld 2013), but they have also shown that transport
infrastructure can reduce movement across network gaps (Berthinussen & Altringham, 2012).
However, little is known of the functional role of national transport infrastructure in effecting
movement and dispersal of species. Network Rail spend £40million a year managing lineside
vegetation, particularly focused on tree removal for safety reasons, but there is little information on
the impacts of this on species dispersal. In a world where human activity is reducing the average
distances moved by animals by up to one third (Tucker et al. 2018), it is important to manage
landscapes to improve permeability in order to mitigate the impacts of habitat fragmentation and
climate change. Working with CASE partner Network Rail, this project will offer access to Britain’s
railway to determine its functional role in connecting woodland habitats across the countryside for a
range of taxa. The project will address whether: (i) animal movement and habitat connectivity are
enhanced by linear woodland habitat along the railway, and (ii) gaps in networks caused by largescale tree removal significantly disrupt network connectivity. This will be achieved by applying a
range of automated data capture methodologies, including acoustic sensors, camera traps, PIT tags
(passive integrated transponders) and GPS technologies, coupled with advanced modelling and data
analysis techniques.

CENTA Flagship

This is a CENTA Flagship Project

Case funding

This project is suitable for CASE funding

Host

UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

Theme

  • Organisms and Ecosystems

Supervisors

Project investigator

  • Richard Broughton

Co-investigators

  • Dr Richard Powell, UKCEH
  • University of Birmingham: Prof. Jon Sadler, Dr Jim Reynolds, & Dr Laura Graham
  • UKCEH: Dr Tom August & Dr Rich Broughton
  • Network Rail: Dr Rossa Donovan & Dr Neil Strong

How to apply

Methodology

The methodological approach is deliberatly flexible to allow the student to develop ideas and select
focal study species. The project will operate at three levels:

(1) Parameterisation of structural
connectivity by production of statistical connectivity models of the study region using existing
GIS/landcover and point counts datasets (UKCEH/Network Rail/NE), together with new metrics of
habitat structure from remote sensing

(2) Quantitification of point-to-point animal movements across a range of sites with different connectivities using a range of advanced sensor technologies (e.g. acoustic sensors, photographic and thermal imaging)

(3) Development of individual-based animal movement models by tracking movements of individualsalong the railway using proven approaches (e.g. PIT-tags, radio-tags and GPS technologies developed by the EPSRC Birmingham Urban Observatory). R packages will explore relationships between network form and type, gap analyses and animal movements. This will support both statistical and numerical models predicting animal movement long the rail network.

Training and skills

The project combines aspects of movement ecology, behavioural ecology, spatial and network
statistics and outreach. Subject-specific training will be provided in each area within the host/CASE
partner institutions, including using R for analysis of complex spatial environmental datasets
(Graham), GIS and remote sensing data (e.g. LiDAR) to describe habitat variability along the rail
network (Broughton). The candidate will also be trained in animal acoustics and the use of GPS/PIT
tagging technologies to track birds/mammals. Specialist training in animal handling will be provided
by UKCEH (Broughton) and UoB (Sadler) with the aim of obtaining a British Trust for Ornithology
ringing licence.

Partners and collaboration

Confirmed CASE partner Network Rail will provide remote sensing data and species records together
with access to their extensive estate for the field experimentation and data capture. Partners
organisations, Natural England (Dr Phil Grice) and Woodland Trust (Dr Chris Nichols), will provide
operational advice concerning management strategies and regulatory frameworks for animal species
and landscape conservation.

Further details

Further details are available from the supervisory team on request: Richard Broughton
(rbrou@ceh.ac.uk), Prof. Jon Sadler (j.p.sadler@bham.ac.uk)

Possible timeline

Year 1

Project development and DR training (e.g. statistics, animal handling/tracking). Data capture
using remote sensing datasets (e.g. LiDAR and Sentinel 2) to characterise the railway treescape
network, selection of field sites for the tracking work, field trials of tracking equipment. Meeting
with partners and stakeholders.

Year 2

Fieldwork at Network Rail sites. Conference attendance (national) and paper writing.

Year 3

Fieldwork at Network Rail sites. Further DR training in statistics, Data analysis and modelling.
Stakeholder outreach events. Conference attendance (international). Paper writing and thesis
writing.

Further reading

Berthinussen, A., & Altringham, J. (2012). The effect of a major road on bat activity and
diversity. Journal of Applied Ecology, 49(1), 8289.
Hale, J. D., Fairbrass, A. J., Matthews, T. J., and Sadler, J. P. (2012) Habitat composition and
connectivity predicts bat presence and activity at foraging sites in a large UK conurbation. PLoS ONE,
7(3), e33300.
Pywell, R.F., Powney, G., Bullock, J.M., Harrower, C., Chamberlain, J., Ridding, L., Morton, R.D. and
Redhead, J.R. (2020) Biodiversity Action Plan: A lineside managed sustainably for safety,
performance, the environment, our customers and our neighbours. Network Rail, Milton Keynes.
Rosenfeld, E. J. (2013) Assessing the ecological significance of linkage and connectivity for avian
biodiversity in urban areas. PhD thesis, University of Birmingham.
Tucker, M., Böhning-Gaese, K., Fagan, W., Fryxell, J. et al. (2018). Moving in the Anthropocene:
Global reductions in terrestrial mammalian movements. Science, 359(6374), 466-469.