Using technology to tackle biodiversity decline - Veolia and Network Rail see results

Cath Everett Profile picture for user catheverett March 11, 2024
Biodiversity decline is a serious but often neglected global issue. But technology can help in enabling nature to flourish as Veolia and the UK’s Network Rail have discovered.

An image of a butterfly sitting on a green plant
(Image by getbrett from Pixabay)

While biodiversity may be in decline around the world, the UK has the dubious honour of being one of the globe’s most nature-depleted countries.

In fact, since monitoring began in 1970, the 10,000 species studied have waned by a huge 19% according to the National Biodiversity Network’s latest State of Nature report. The upshot is that less than half of the UK’s biodiversity prior to the Industrial Revolution now remains intact, with one in six species being at risk of extinction. Intensive farming and the continuing effects of climate change are the two biggest single contributors to the problem.

In a bid to do something about it, in England at least, the government has introduced new biodiversity net gain regulations for all new road and house building projects. This means that all planning applications for major sites submitted from 12 February and for small ones from 2 April will have to demonstrate how they intend to generate a biodiversity net gain of at least 10%. 

Cory Reynolds is Corporate Affairs and Communications Director at Veolia Northern Europe, which provides water and waste management and energy services. She believes the legislation is a “positive step forward” in that it will “encourage organizations to think more about their biodiversity footprint” than has been the case in the past. 

The issue does appear to be rising up the corporate agenda though, not least due to the introduction of initiatives, such as the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures’ risk management and disclosure framework. As Reynolds points out:

When you look at sustainability reporting and the kinds of activities that form part of corporate social responsibility, we’re now starting to see more biodiversity in the mix. This is important as everything starts and ends with nature…Ultimately, taking an environmentally-friendly approach is an effective economic model too. 

It’s frustrating to see the narrative that environmental legislation equals no economic growth. Balancing economic development and growth with environmental benefits is not a zero-sum game. It benefits everyone.

As a result, biodiversity is an issue that Veolia takes seriously. Reynolds explains:

We sit across three key service areas: water, energy and waste. They all rely on the natural world, which means we take our environmental stewardship seriously. It’s embedded into our business model and systems that we want to leave the environment in a better state for future generations than we found it. 

Therefore, we have to move on from a linear model and create a fully circular economy that has a positive impact on key drivers of biodiversity loss. This means, for example, reducing the extraction of natural resources by recycling.

Monitoring biodiversity using Leko

One way the company is trying to improve biodiversity in the UK is by means of its in-house-developed Leko digital listening device. The AI-based tool, which was housed in a wooden box for protection, was trialled for just over a year at two separate locations 50 metres apart near its Kingswood office in Birmingham. One box was situated in a mown area and the other in a non-mown space.

The device’s role was to monitor its surroundings and identify key species, count population numbers, and register behaviour. While bats were the key focus, it also captured information on birds and grasshoppers too. 

The aim of the trial was to develop a benchmark of the sites’ current situation in biodiversity terms. The data obtained will be used to adjust Kingswood’s local biodiversity action plan, with the objective of supporting nature in the best way possible going forward. 

Examples of findings include there being six times more bats and a 17-fold increase in grasshoppers in or near the unmown area. This implies that they benefit from grass remaining uncut. 

It was also discovered during the trial that Pipestrelle bats were feeding in the middle of the night rather than during the more usual dawn or dusk times. This suggests that light pollution from the nearby office building was affecting their behaviour. The advantage of taking this kind of evidence-based approach, Reynolds says, is that:

We can use Leko to inform our plans in a specific way rather than take a one-size-fits-all approach, and work with species that are local to a particular site. The data has given us a huge leap forward in terms of understanding what species are present. 

It may require more manual investigation, but having a baseline of data is important as it gets us much closer to understanding how we can support the right habitat for them to flourish.

The next step will be to attach the technology to the company’s electric refuse trucks (as they are quieter than diesel vehicles) when doing municipal rounds in the City of Westminster, London. Reynolds explains:

We want to know if we can get a broader picture of biodiversity across a wider area. We’ve already done it on a bus in France, so we know the device can pick up sound in urban areas and, as it uses AI, it can distinguish truck from nature sounds. 

The aim is to share the data with local authorities and other partners, so they can get a view of biodiversity in their area, understand what’s flourishing, where numbers are low and what they can do to manage the situation more effectively.

Network Rail

Another organization that is using technology to monitor biodiversity is Network Rail. The company, which owns and manages the UK’s rail infrastructure, has a total estate of approximately 52,000 acres across railway corridors that span 20,000km. 

The catalyst for its decision to safeguard habitats in these railway corridors was John Varley’s independent review of its vegetation management in November 2018 for the Department of Transport. This produced recommendations for Network Rail to improve its lineside biodiversity. 

The creation of a 2020 Biodiversity Action Plan followed. It specified there should be no loss to lineside biodiversity this year, with net gains to be achieved by 2035.

To help the organization achieve its goals, it teamed up with the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), which is an expert in wildlife monitoring. This partnership led to an ongoing, four-year trial to understand the quality of a range of remote technologies at sites in three counties in its Southern region: Kent, Sussex and Wessex. 

These technologies include remote acoustic sensors and camera traps to collect images, videos and audio recordings of local wildlife, with birds and bats being the initial targets. Google Cloud processes the related data using pre-trained machine learning models: BirdNet, BatDetect and CityNet, which detects anthropogenic sounds, such as trains. Neil Strong, Biodiversity Strategy Manager at Network Rail, explains:

The trials are helping us be more targeted in the local management and maintenance of our estate. They enable colleagues to know which protected species are present and where, which means that teams can work in particular locations legally and safely. They’ve also used the information to change certain approaches. 

For example, we also put monitoring equipment in a woodland in Derbyshire to monitor dormouse activity. They’re a European protected species, which means their habitat and breeding areas are protected by law. So, as soon as we know they’re there, we can change the way we manage their habitat. 

But this is only the start of it, Strong says:

We’re working up to a bigger picture, which will enable us to make science-based decisions based on what we’re finding. So, for example, if we know that dormice live in a certain habitat, we can assume they might be present in similar habitat elsewhere. 

This means that if we need to work on 100 miles of line and the dormouse habitat only covers three miles, we can be more targeted in our assessment. It also makes our relationship with Natural England easier and more efficient in terms of the time spent on applying and reviewing licenses.

Further benefits of using technology in this context include improved employee safety as people no longer need to walk along potentially dangerous lineside areas. Having access to multimedia data likewise makes it easier to engage both internal and external stakeholders. But being able to manage the habitat of one species effectively also has a knock-on impact on others too. Strong explains:

By managing the estate and creating an ideal habitat for one species, you make it suitable for other species too as you build up a wider food web and food chain. It creates a structure of management where you can do it all, so manage the network effectively for the trains but also for nature too. 

Creating a well-managed green corridor creates connectivity between isolated species populations, which helps with nature recovery – and going forward technology can really help with that.

My take

Biodiversity has to date been a grossly neglected topic, both in business and elsewhere, despite the vital role it plays in ensuring the world has a sustainable future. But taking it into account from the start of any environmental initiatives or programmes is vital. Strong explains:

Always ensure you include biodiversity at the start of whatever you’re doing. The later you leave it, the more expensive and difficult managing it becomes. Technology helps here by giving you the right information upfront so you can build it early into planning regimes and ensure it doesn’t get in the way. In other words, if you get the planning right, you can do biodiversity cost-effectively at the same time.

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