East Anglia’s fragile wildlife populations are finding sanctuary at Greater Anglia’s railway stations – thanks to the efforts of volunteers who are transforming land the equivalent of 34 tennis courts into eco-friendly gardens

The sheer scale and success of these gardening projects has led Greater Anglia to team up with the region’s Wildlife Trusts to pioneer a brand new ‘Wildlife Friendly Stations Accreditation’ recognising this important work. Four rail stations in Norfolk – Brundall Gardens, Cantley, West Runton and Thetford – were the first to receive ‘Wildlife Friendly’ status. This year more stations across Essex, Suffolk, Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire will follow.

In total, there are now 61 rail station gardens on Greater Anglia’s network – if each square metre of garden was put end-to-end they would stretch from London to Aberdeen.

They are cared for by Greater Anglia’s team of station adopters – who help to look after their rail stations for the benefit of their communities – and while some station gardens are newly created, some have been tended to by the community for many, many years.

Each garden provides a vital additional habitat for local wildlife, as well as making the stations more attractive and welcoming, contributing to human wellbeing too. Since 2019, Greater Anglia has completed a yearly audit of its station gardens to track what is happening in them, how much land is being transformed and find out whether it is being used by wildlife.

The results have consistently revealed the station gardens are supporting a wide range of creatures including many different types of butterflies as well as bees, slow worms, bats, foxes, deer and many varieties of birds, recording more than 200 different species. Under the new accreditation scheme, rail station platforms and gardens are assessed by a Wildlife Trust Conservation Officer to determine how well they support wildlife, and the station adopters are presented with a report of the findings, a list of observed flora and fauna, recommendations and an opportunity to discuss further with the conservation team to help their gardens to be as biodiverse as possible.

Norfolk Wildlife’s Trust’s Corporate and Membership Development Officer, James Hogg, said: “The alarming decline in the abundance of wildlife and the plight of species under threat means that just protecting the nature we have left is not enough; we need to put nature into recovery, and to do so at scale and with urgency. We are working to create a nature recovery network across Norfolk – and with fellow wildlife trusts across the UK – to create more space for wildlife.

‘This project with Greater Anglia is a fantastic example of how people can transform nature-poor areas into new nature-rich places – and change the way we think about land, seizing opportunities to help nature outside traditional nature reserves.’

Greater Anglia’s Customer and Community Engagement Manager, Alan Neville, said, ‘We’re delighted to partner with the region’s wildlife trusts to formally recognise the valuable work of our station adopter volunteers in supporting wildlife and improving their local environment.

‘I’d like to congratulate the volunteers at these stations on receiving this recognition and thank them for the incredible work that are doing that makes each station a wonderful place to be, that is contributing to support biodiversity locally.’

In addition, Greater Anglia has pledged all its station gardens to the rewilding and nature recovery movement, WildEast, which aims to give 20 per cent of East Anglia – 250,000 hectares – back to nature by 2050. Statistics show that, since 1970, many species have suffered including tree sparrows whose numbers have fallen by 85 per cent, Common toads, 68 per cent, Nightingales, 93 per cent and hedgehogs whose numbers are down from 30 million to just one million. WildEast aims to reverse this decline by asking everyone, including farming estates, industrial estates, housing
estates, schools, gardens, allotments and churchyards, to give whatever land they can back to nature. This can mean planting wildlife friendly areas or simply leaving the land as space for nature.

At Alresford station in Essex, the station adopters’ work to create a refuge for bees and other pollinators has even helped the entire town to become one of the first in the country to be officially named a ‘Bee Friendly Town’. The status has been granted by the Bee Friendly Trust with Alresford one of eight towns to receive the accolade nationally.

To achieve this, Alresford’s main projects focused on areas near to the old station house with a wildflower area to attract bees, and other habitats created at the village allotments and playing field. A roadside verge was sown with wildflower seeds and a bee hotel was mounted on the station house wall.

The parish council and Greater Anglia station adopters have also worked with the Essex & South Suffolk Community Rail Partnership, the local primary school and Cobnuts Co-operative at Alresford rail station to create an extensive wildlife garden at Alresford station with a specially-commissioned bee friendly sculpture and planting, which in 2020 earned them a Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) ‘Bees Needs Champions’ Award.

Parish council chairman and volunteer station adopter, Frank Belgrove, who received the award on behalf of the community, said: ‘We’re so thrilled to hear this wonderful news! So many people, young and older, in the community have played a part in encouraging pollinators to flourish in our town. Bees are vital to us all and this excellent award status for our community will increase awareness of their importance and help us do even more to help and support them.’

Greater Anglia has also worked closely with their vegetation management contractor, Railscape, to ensure that its staff understand the nature of the work going on in station gardens and its focus on biodiversity.

As Railscape is a company committed to reducing their overall environmental impact, it has put its full support behind the development of Greater Anglia’s station gardens, providing a member of their team – Warren Smith – to help station adopters for two days per week. This generous support is a real boon to the station adopters who now have someone to call upon for help with bigger projects such as establishing new gardens, installing fixtures and fittings and help with heavy duty vegetation management – all delivered by an environmental expert.

In turn, the scheme helps Railscape to meet its environmental aims by recycling surplus materials left over from station projects and encourages them to manage vegetation sensitively with an
eye to conserving habitat as an intrinsic part of the process.

Greater Anglia is following the industry’s Sustainable Stations: Best Practice Guide, which details ways in which train operators can meet this commitment in support of global goals of decarbonisation, reducing waste and supporting local plant and animal life with action to reduce waste, support local wildlife and cut the carbon footprint of railway stations.

With a focus on becoming ever more sustainable, Greater Anglia’s reported carbon emissions have reduced by over 25,000 tonnes of equivalent Carbon Dioxide (CO2) in recent years – as revealed in the company’s annual Environment and Energy Report.

The report shows that Greater Anglia’s carbon emissions have reduced by over 25,000 tonnes over the last two years with a series of energy and carbon reduction measures. This is equivalent to the annual average energy use of over 9,000 homes. This has seen Greater Anglia introduce new more energy-efficient trains, cut waste, increase recycling and work to improve sustainability and biodiversity at stations – such as upcycling and donating materials from station refurbishments to other local projects, building insect refuges at depots and staff signing on points and constructing composting bins for station adopters to use in their station gardens.

The company has also worked to install wireless energy management systems at its rail stations to ensure heating and lighting are used efficiently and taken steps to reduce water consumption.

Greater Anglia’s Environment & Energy Manager, Stephanie Evans, said: ‘Rail is a really important part of the ‘green recovery’ we are all aspiring to, helping communities stay connected to jobs, education, family, friends and leisure opportunities in a way that helps to reduce everyone’s carbon footprint.

‘Our new trains are more efficient and produce less particulate pollution than our old ones which will help to make rail travel in East Anglia an even more environmentally friendly option.’

Aerodynamic fronts, lighter chassis and brakes which return energy back to the network are some of the features of Greater Anglia’s new trains which are making train travel even more sustainable.

They are also longer with more seats, which means that they can carry more passengers and take even more cars off the road – preventing tonnes of harmful CO2 emissions being released into the atmosphere as well as reducing congestion.

One of Greater Anglia’s full intercity trains potentially takes up to 504 cars off the road, while a new four carriage bi-mode train removes 152, and a three-carriage bi-mode train removes 111. The company’s new five-carriage electric commuter trains take up to 362 cars off the road – or 725 when they run as ten carriages. Leaving the car at home and taking the train cuts carbon emissions by two thirds.

Greater Anglia worked with environmental consultants, WSP, to quantify its environmental impact and understand its carbon emissions, as part of an aim to become even greener and more sustainable.

Last year the company was given an internationally recognised stamp of approval for businesses committed to reducing their impact on the environment meaning it could retain its ISO 14001 and ISO 50001 environment and energy certifications.

Steph continues: ‘Through our efforts to reduce emissions, waste and energy consumption and together with our station adopters and community rail partnerships, we are working hard to make the railway is East Anglia the most environmentally friendly way to travel and a positive benefit to the communities it serves.

‘We hope that, as people start to make small changes to their lifestyles to help tackle the climate emergency, they will consider rail as an attractive alternative to the car and come with us as we continue our green journey.’