What makes a biodiversity net-gain target work?

East West Railway Company’s head of environment Vanessa Hilton explains the thought process behind the organisation’s recent biodiversity net-gain target and what steps can be taken to deliver on it.

What makes a biodiversity net-gain target work?

Weather-related incidents have incurred a £3bn cost to UK network operators over the last 15 years.

For a small island, we are privileged to be home to more than 70,000 different species, some of whom live in rare or unique habitats like chalk streams or fenland. The Biodiversity Intactness Index (BII), used by the UN and the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform, places the UK at the bottom of the list for G7 countries and third from bottom across all European countries. So, the moral imperative to not only try to bring a halt to the erosion of our native wildlife but also do what we can to increase the chances for nature to replenish is strong. But beyond the altruistic, it’s in our own interests, as a species dependent on complex ecosystems, that biodiversity that is critical to every part of human life on earth is maintained. For commercial organisations, the impact of climate change is rising up the risk register so halting biodiversity loss to help mitigate climate change makes business sense.

As a relatively young organisation, at East West Rail (EWR), we’ve been able to think about nature from the start and considered the environment in everything we do. We have a number of sustainability ambitions including to be operationally net-zero by 2050 and reducing the capital carbon through intelligent design. Additionally, we are now proud to say that we are committing to a 10% biodiversity net gain across the whole length of our project. We’re still at the beginning of this journey, but as legislation is coming to ensure more developments include net biodiversity gains, there are lessons we can share: early-stage surveying and planning; the value of a modular approach; and collaboration.

It sounds obvious but planning is key, how and when to plan is crucial. The natural landscape between Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridge is quintessential English countryside taking in ancient forests, rivers, meadows, streams, and woodland. We recognise that early in the design stage and well before any new construction begins we need to fully understand the natural environment around us. We’ve taken a hybrid approach to environmental surveys, using the best of nature’s own skills teamed with the latest in digital technology.

Within the first stage of construction of East West Rail between Bicester and Bletchley (known as Connection Stage 1), two specially trained dogs were used to seek out, the easily missed but protected species of, greater crested newts. It took the dogs just two weeks to identify 100 newts; human ecologists would have taken five times as long. For surveying larger areas over a longer period, we used a new digital tool developed by our partner Arup – the tool uses survey information and remote-sensed data to enable the mapping of ecological habitats. A Red-Amber-Green status map is created from the data allowing easy identification of high-value or rare habitat locations. Having this map at the design stage of the project allows solutions to be developed that ensure existing biodiversity features are avoided. Irreplaceable and other high-value habitat types can be retained and any proposed new habitat creation can be located where it will maximise biodiversity gain by connecting to and supplementing the best existing habitats.

Voluntarily setting a 10% biodiversity net gain target isn’t something we’ve entered into lightly – we’re the first major rail project in the UK to make this commitment. There is no doubt it is a challenge but a huge bonus for us is having government support now at the design phase of connection stages two and three, which means we can start planning effectively from the outset.

This modular way of working is part of the DNA of EWR as an organisation – the whole rail Project is broken into stages. Based on the earlier surveying done for the first stage between Bicester and Bletchley there are already 20 Ecological Compensation Sites (ECS) of over 100 hectares along with a wider replanting programme being delivered by the East West Alliance (Network Rail, Atkins, Laing O’Rourke and VolkerRai). These sites were set up two years in advance of any construction to allow time for them to become ecologically functional, and included new ponds, badger setts, an otter holt, bat and owl boxes along with trees and plants such as the rare black poplar. The ECSs are now thriving wildlife havens.

The modular approach along with remote digital monitoring gives us more flexibility to test a concept first, and a better learning and feedback loop to help with continuous improvement as we begin to roll out the next phase of replenishing nature.

As a relatively small organisation we are nimble enough to be able to test out ideas and refresh as we progress, but none of this would be possible without collaboration. We make it our job to be curious and ask questions: local interest and nature groups are a wealth of invaluable local information, and our partners and stakeholders will help us find new ways to do things and challenge our thinking. But it’s also important to collaborate internally. As an environment team, we need to be included in the discussions, planning and design stages right from the beginning. We are working hard to embed environmental ambitions in the Project outcomes and requirements which means everyone understands and is working towards to the same goals.

Last December, governments from all around the world agreed to a plan to halt and reverse nature loss and restore ecosystems. Now we all need to play our part to make this a reality. Achieving a biodiversity net gain for the UK is going to be challenging but learning from the work that has already been done, we’re confident we can make a success story for the wildlife between Bletchley and Cambridge and if we can do it whilst building a railway, others can too.

Comments (1)

  1. Emma Price Thomas says:

    The shame is that governments around the world committed to 30% and you have committed to 10%. how are we going to bridge that gap?

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