Tree and vegetation management work between Rogart and Lairg has been successfully completed by Network Rail, in addition to protecting nearby nesting Northern Harriers.
The site of the work crosses the Strath Carnaig and Strath Fleet SSSI – Site of special scientific interest – and SPA – Special protection zone.
Both are areas designated to support a breeding population of Northern Harrier that is of European significance.
The urgent work necessary for the safe operation of the railway coincided with the breeding season, so the work could potentially have disrupted the breeding harriers.
But Network Rail’s ecology team worked with the Highland Raptor Study Group to investigate the Northern Harrier – a bird of prey – near the line.
Jonathan Callis, Senior Asset Engineer for Network Rail, said “we take our responsibility to the environment along the tracks and the Scottish wildlife very seriously”.
He continued, “However, to protect the safety of the railway and those who run on it, we sometimes have to do work during bird nesting season, in protected areas or in this case, both.”
“This is when we seek the help of our ecologists and specialists to develop safe working methods and best practices to minimize disturbance and protect species or habitats adjacent to the line. “
The Senior Asset Engineer added, “We are delighted that the care, professionalism and collaboration shown by everyone who contributed to this project has resulted in such a positive outcome for the birds.”
Once breeding harriers were identified, Network Rail implemented unique work procedures to reduce disturbance to birds, and three Northern Harrier chicks successfully fled from nests adjacent to the work site.
A real success for these protected birds.
A “high risk work area” was identified as part of the mitigation measures put in place for the Northern Harrier, which included areas adjacent to the railway line that provided nesting and habitat habitats. appropriate feeding, as well as areas where Northern Harrier activity has been noted.
Due to strict guidelines, no work has been allowed in the area around the nests until all breeding attempts have been completed.
Measures have also been put in place to minimize noise pollution, through the use of battery-powered chainsaws and time-limited work in a given area in order to keep noise to a minimum.
Before any form of work could begin, an additional survey was carried out to verify all nesting Northern Harriers and to confirm that the work could proceed safely.
A camera was also installed to monitor the nesting sites during the work and to verify that there were no signs of disturbance.
Brian Etheridge, Highland Raptor Study Group, said: “It has been a pleasure working with Network Rail this spring and summer to do bird surveys near the railway line between Rogart and Lairg.
He continued: “the priority was to search for breeding Saint Martin’s harriers, a rare and endangered bird of prey for which this area has been designated as a Special Protection Area (SPA)”.
He added that “two nesting pairs were found, with a nest in the immediate vicinity of the track. Network Rail was quick to suspend all trackside clearing to avoid any disturbance to the nesting pair. . “