Millions of trees are at risk in a secretive nationwide felling operation launched by Network Rail to end the nuisance of leaves and branches falling on the line.
Thousands of poplars, sycamores, limes, ash trees and horse chestnuts have already been chopped down across the country from Yorkshire to Dorset, and the scale of the potential destruction outlined in a Network Rail blueprint involves 10m trees growing within 60 metres of track.
The company has used drones to create an aerial map of its 40,000 hectares of railway and identified “hotspots” where mature trees might cause a problem at an unspecified time in the future. Engineers are operating in a targeted felling programme that dwarfs the operation by Sheffield city council that was halted in the face of huge public protest and condemnation from the environment secretary, Michael Gove.
Over the last fortnight, people around the country have woken to the sound of chainsaws and expressed concern at the lack of consultation and the scale of the destruction.
In one incident, police in Bournemouth were called by residents to complain that engineers were operating illegally as the felling is taking place during the nesting season.
At one west London station this week, an engineer felling five mature trees said they were carrying out a “pre-emptive strike” in case branches or leaves fell on the line in future.
Ray Walton witnessed hundreds of trees being chopped down along the length of track between Christchurch and Bournemouth. “It was total mass destruction, they obliterated every tree,” he said. “These trees were mature 30-foot-high trees which have been there for 50 years in some cases and never caused a problem.
“This went far beyond reasonable management of the trees. They took them all out, and destroyed the habitat for #wildlife.”
Network Rail boasts of the green corridor along its tracks as a haven for wildlife, but in London, Dorset, the Midlands and Yorkshire thousands of trees and the vegetation beneath them are being cleared, leaving habitats devastated.
James Graham, from Manchester, said he saw thousands of trees being felled last week along a 10-mile section of the trans-Pennine route from Manchester to Leeds.