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National Cycle Network – a haven for wildlife

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Logo: Sustrans

Traffic-free paths on the National Cycle Network benefit over four million people each year. Jim Whiteford, Senior Ecologist at Sustrans, the walking and cycling charity and the custodian of the National Cycle Network, highlights the walking and cycling paths on the Network are also an important green corridor for our flora and fauna.

If you’ve walked or cycled anywhere in the UK, the chances are that you were on the National Cycle Network.

The Network, with its little blue signs, spans the length and breadth of the UK from the Shetland Islands to Land’s End and from East Anglia to the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. It’s a vital part of the UK’s infrastructure strategy. It’s a national asset.

Fallowfield volunteers (Credit Ian Barker)
Fallowfield volunteers (Credit Ian Barker)

Paths for everyone

The 16,575-mile Network is enjoyed by a multitude of people of all ages and abilities, and for a variety of reasons, including leisure, commuting to work and school, getting to the shops or visiting the local park. Over 4,000 miles on the Network comprises traffic-free paths that pass through a wide range of terrain including urban greenways, forest tracks and quiet country lanes.

The car-free paths are an especially important escape for those with mobility issues, the elderly and young families. Many of the routes follow canals or riversides, offering users the additional calming and restorative benefits of being close to water.

In many locations the traffic-free sections have become a real community hub, acting as a linear park, a stretch of wild nature in the midst of urban or suburban sprawl that offer an attractive place to walk the dog, get outside, breathe some fresh air, well away from traffic noise, exhaust fumes and pavement bustle.

But these green corridors aren’t just great for humans – they’re essential for wildlife too.

Greener Greenways

Greener Greenway Routes shown in red around Manchester (Credit Ian Barker)
Greener Greenway Routes shown in red around Manchester (Credit Ian Barker)

Wildlife on the traffic-free paths can thrive all year round, providing valuable niches and habitat for anything from hedgehogs to stag beetles.

UK’s single pockets of woodland or grassland surrounded by roads, towns and cities, changing climate and air pollution mean that it’s important to provide habitat connectivity to allow species to disperse, respond to changing environmental conditions, exchange genes and move around safely.

And paths on the Network can do just that – improve the connectivity between nature reserves and other important habitats.

Sustrans, with the support of the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation (in England and Wales) and Scottish Natural Heritage (in Scotland), has been running conservation projects along sections of the National Cycle Network since 2013, called ‘Greener Greenways’.

This biodiversity conservation project focuses on 66 traffic-free walking and cycling routes owned or managed by Sustrans across England, Wales and Scotland and helps manage the verges of off-road cycle paths in conjunction with internal land management teams and volunteers to create more species-rich linear habitats.

In order to improve levels of knowledge about the nature along its greenways, we identify what flora and fauna inhabit them through an expert survey, volunteer surveys, data searches and consultation with conservation organisations.

Using the data from England and Wales, we have also studied the current and potential role of the routes in reducing habitat fragmentation in collaboration with the University of York.

All this information informs the development of habitat management plans and helps us protect and enhance habitats and species populations, and increase biodiversity along the route and habitat connectivity.

The Greener Greenways routes total 418km in length and link with over 5,000km of additional greenways across the UK. The initial pilot in England and Wales ran for three and a half years, between May 2013 and Nov 2016, and has being rolled out across the UK between 2017 and 2019.

Much of the National Cycle Network is owned and managed by local councils, charities or individuals. The next stage of the Greener Greenways project is to partner with these landowners, share the lessons learned from the project, incorporate more areas into the project and work towards a more diverse conservation network nationwide.

Get involved

You can be involved in looking after and learning about nature along your local greenway. Read about becoming a Sustrans wildlife volunteer. We are also setting up ‘friends of’ groups to act as guardians and advocates of each greenway.

If you'd like to know more about designing and maintaining biodiverse paths, download our Greenway Management Handbook.

Case study: Butterfly Conservation’s Small Blue Butterfly Project – Warwickshire

Lias Line Signage (Sustrans)
Lias Line Signage (Sustrans)

The small blue butterfly Cupido minimus is one of the rarest butterflies in the West Midlands Region with only three colonies surviving in 2008. It has vanished from Shropshire, Staffordshire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire and the West Midlands County. Although it just survives in Warwickshire, it has declined by 87% since the 1960s.

Butterfly Conservation has worked in partnership with Sustrans to restore and improve calcareous grasslands on the Lias Line greenway. Thanks to this partnership, including work by local volunteers, habitats along the greenway now supports 22% of the small blue butterfly colonies in Warwickshire, with overall butterfly diversity along the line growing from 17 in 2012 to 21 in 2016.

Case study (Scotland): Species-rich meadow creation in West Lothian

Meadow prep workday in May 2015 (Greener Greenways Scotland)
Meadow prep workday in May 2015 (Greener Greenways Scotland)
Site visit in July 2017 (Greener Greenways Scotland)
Site visit in July 2017 (Greener Greenways Scotland)

This case study shows the transformation of species-poor grassland resulting from major infrastructure creation project to a colourful species-rich meadow attracting pollinators and visually pleasing to the users of the NCN 75 near Blackridge, West Lothian.

Sustrans volunteers have started working on this site in 2015 after it was established through site survey and habitat management planning process that the site has a potential for biodiversity enhancement to provide a species-rich habitat requiring very little habitat management intervention in the long run.

The ground was prepared and sown with a seed mix of native wildflowers and grasses of Scottish provenance and the site gets cut by volunteers every autumn with traditional scythes. The benefits are manifold, the volunteers learn new skills or improve their scything technique, meet other likeminded people and spend the day outdoors, and above all throughout the year the site is a carpet of flowers and buzzing insects.

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