The Network hums with the turning of wheels, the sound of voices and the pounding of feet. But pause a while and you’ll discover communities of wildlife also travelling up and down traffic-free paths every day. In this blog, Sustrans ecologists take a look at just seven of the many species that we're helping to thrive on the paths.
Animals are not so different to us humans.
They’re also building homes, raising young and socialising.
There are hundreds of species living on the traffic-free paths of the National Cycle Network (the Network).
In this blog we’ll learn about seven that can be found in England.
We’ll be learning about their lives and how Sustrans is supporting them to thrive.
The traffic–free paths of the Network offer a unique opportunity for wildlife to safely travel on over 4,000 miles of linear routes.
Paths which connect multiple habitats are extremely important in combatting habitat fragmentation and falling UK biodiversity.
About barn owls
Barn owls are nocturnal. They hunt small mammals such as mice and voles after dark.
Barn owls are excellent predators, they possess:
- superb eyesight in low light
- precision hearing to locate prey
- specialised feathers for silent flight
- the ability to drop quickly to the ground.
There’s little escape from their sharp talons if you’re a small prey animal.
However, despite their outstanding hunting abilities, around 70% of fledged barn owls die within their first year .
The main cause is thought to be starvation, highlighting the importance of strong populations of small mammals in rural areas.
Spotting barn owls on the Network
You can spot barn owls all year-round, hunting along the hedgerows of traffic-free paths after dark.
In winter there’s a chance you may see them in daylight as they extend their hunting hours to catch enough food to survive the cold.
Our ecologists' pick of paths with barn owls
How Sustrans is supporting barn owls
We’re installing super-sized nesting boxes which barn owls require at selected sites along the Network.
Collisions with traffic are a significant cause of death for barn owls.
Our work to reduce the number of journeys made by car reduces this risk.
How you can support barn owls
A choice many of us can make is to stop using rodent poison.
Rodents are a primary source of food for barn owls and the poison is passed onto them with fatal consequences.
"Male Barn Owl 1" by ahisgett is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
There are 18 different species in the UK, meaning bats make up almost one third of all UK mammals.
UK bats only eat insects, and the Common Pipistrelle can eat 3,000 in just one night.
Bats don’t build nests, they move around roost sites such as hollow trees, caves and roof spaces.
They typically have just one pup per year but they can live for up to 30 years.
Bats are excellent indicators of biodiversity because they rely on the success of so many other species.
Spotting bats on the Network
Bats can be seen flying over traffic-free paths all over the UK in both urban and rural settings.
You’re most likely to see them flying in the summer months since they hibernate from November to March.
Sit quietly and take notice of the skies around dusk and dawn during warm dry weather.
Our ecologists’ pick of paths with bats
- National Route 665, Thorp Arch, Yorkshire
- National Route 7, Beamish Woods, County Durham
- Colliers Way, National Route 24, Somerset
How Sustrans is supporting bats
We’ve installed roosting boxes on many of the routes we manage and plan to provide more.
When maintaining existing paths and developing new ones, we protect and plant miles of hedgerows and trees.
These boundary habitats provide bats with safe routes to commute on.
And the former railway bridges which our sister charity Railway Paths maintain offer excellent roosting sites.
How you can support bats
Bats rely on healthy insect populations.
If you manage a garden or greenspace, make it a bat buffet by following the guidance of the Bat Conservation Trust.
And should you ever find a bat, always follow their ‘Help! I’ve found a bat’ instructions.
"Common Pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pipistrellus)" by Meneer Zjeroen is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
There are over 250 different species in the UK.
Bees feed on flowers. Their pollen is a source of protein and fat, whilst nectar provides bees with energy and hydration.
They will also forage for other sugars, such as fallen fruit or fizzy drinks.
Some solitary bee species hibernate over winter, while others die after laying eggs in autumn.
Bees in colonies have life cycles specific to their role within the hive.
Nests vary by species - some like ready-to-move-into crevices in buildings and trees, others tunnel into wood or earth, whilst some build nests in soft materials like moss.
Spotting bees on the Network
Bees can be seen all over the Network during warmer months, feeding and collecting pollen in swathes of wild flowers.
Not all bees can sting, and those that can don’t want to sting you.
It’s their only defence if they think you might be threatening their hive and all the babies (known as larvae) who are inside.
So by all means admire a bee, but if they become agitated, give them more space.
Our ecologists’ pick of paths with bees
- Nutbrook Trail, National Route 67, Derbyshire
- Phoenix Trail, National Route 57, Buckinghamshire
- National Route 68, Haltwhistle to Alston, Northumberland/Cumbria
How Sustrans is supporting bees
We sow wildflower meadows and maintain existing ones, providing bees with a source of nectar and pollen.
We also build bee banks for solitary mining bees to live, nest and hibernate in.
How you can support bees
Plant bee-friendly plants in gardens and greenspaces or the more affordable bee-friendly seed bombs or packs.
If you find a resting or struggling bee, it may be in need of nourishment.
Offer it a 50/50 solution of white sugar and water on the surface of a spoon or pebble.
Don’t use honey or brown sugar as these can challenge their immune system and digestion.
Pop the sweet treat in front of the bee in a sheltered place so it can fuel up.
About common toads
Common toads are nocturnal, spending their days burrowed into shady piles of moist leaves and logs.
By night they enjoy eating slugs, snails, worms and other insects.
The largest common toads may even tackle slow worms or harvest mice.
When frightened, their warts secrete a foul-tasting substance to deter predators from eating them.
In early spring they migrate back to the pond that they were spawned in for breeding.
Toad spawn is laid in parallel lines, making it easy to tell apart from frog spawn which is in clumps.
Unlike frogs who have long legs and hop, toads have shorter legs and crawl.
Spotting common toads on the Network
Listen out for their low croaking after dark, near damp and wet places from March to October.
Common toads are loudest during their breeding season in early spring, when you might see them beside ponds.
Our ecologists’ pick of paths with common toads
- National Route 62, Manchester
- National Route 5, Kennington Meadows, Oxfordshire
- National Route 64, Newark-on-Trent, Nottinghamshire
How Sustrans is supporting common toads
When our routes are near naturally very wet places, we encourage common toads and other amphibians to take up residence by creating wet scrapes next to the path.
These help surface water to drain from the paths and create valuable habitats for breeding amphibians.
Many toads are killed by motor vehicles in spring when migrating back to their home ponds for the breeding season.
By reducing the number of journeys we make by car, we’re giving more toads a better chance of survival.
How you can support common toads
If you manage a garden or greenspace, leave a wild shaded area with piles of leaves to give a toad a warm safe home to overwinter in.
"Common toad" by erikpaterson is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
About hazel dormice
Hazel dormice are nocturnal.
At night they climb between trees and hedges in search of flowers, nuts, berries and insects to eat.
In warm months they rest inside holes in trees or build nests above ground level.
Hazel dormice hibernate from October to April when their food supply naturally runs out.
At this time of year they go to ground, sleeping inside logs and at the base of trees.
They tuck themselves just under ground level to be near to moisture.
This is essential to their sustaining their long sleep, which they are famous for snoring through.
Spotting hazel dormice on the Network
If you see a dormouse it will most likely be on a summer's night.
But sightings are extremely rare so consider yourself incredibly fortunate if you do.
Moreover, they’re only found in specific locations in the South of England and Wales.
Our ecologists’ pick of paths with hazel dormice*
- National Route 1, Fordwich, Kent
- National Route 482, Marlborough, Wiltshire
- Camel Trail, National Route 32, Cornwall
*Dormice are notoriously secretive and their presence can only be suspected on these routes.
How Sustrans is supporting hazel dormice
The hazel dormouse population has declined by 50% since 2000 .
As managers of land, it’s vital that we play our part in combatting the habitat fragmentation and loss which has decimated their numbers.
To do this, we plant hedgerows with native, species-rich shrubs which link up the landscape.
This is essential for hazel dormice as they rarely come to ground.
We also install nesting boxes at sites where we have good reason to believe dormice are.
How you can support hazel dormice
There is little we can do as individuals to support hazel dormice.
The responsibility lies with people and organisations like Sustrans who manage land and can nurture dormouse friendly landscapes.
Hazel dormice are known to take up residence in bird boxes on trees.
So if you're able to site a box in southern England or Wales, you never know, one may move in.
One thing’s for sure though, if a dormouse doesn't, another animal will.
"Hazel dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius), Skole, Lviv Oblast, Ukraine" by Frank.Vassen is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
Robins feed on worms, insects, seeds and fruit.
Robins nest close to the ground, finding safe, hidden spaces in hedges, trees and undergrowth.
Robins sing all year round to guard their territory, which they fiercely protect.
Territories are defended by a breeding pair in summer, but in winter each will have their own.
They’re known for their feisty and bold nature, and you may notice them following you when you walk through their patch.
Robins have a strong caring instinct and have often been observed feeding the chicks and fledglings of other birds.
Spotting robins on the Network
Robins can be found UK wide on rural and urban traffic-free paths.
They don’t migrate, so can be seen all year round.
Don’t go looking for a robin’s nest though - it’s against the law to disturb a nesting bird.
And if robins think you know where their nest is, they’ll readily abandon it.
Our ecologists’ pick of paths with robins
- Liverpool Loop Line, National Route 62, Merseyside
- Trans Pennine Trail, National Route 62, Barnsley, South Yorkshire
- National Route 64, Lincoln, Lincolnshire
How Sustrans is supporting robins
We carefully time our maintenance and construction work to not disturb nesting robins (and other animal species too).
If there is any doubt, one of our ecologists checks a site before work begins.
How you can support robins
Robins will appreciate you putting food out for them, especially in winter.
They naturally feed at ground level, so a tray of sunflower hearts, bird seed and mealworms will go down a treat.
Soak mealworms in water for added hydration and add a little bowl of water nearby for drinking and bathing.
©2014, Sustrans, all rights reserved
About slow worms
Slow worms are not snakes but legless lizards, and unlike snakes, slow worms can blink.
They feed on garden invertebrates such as spiders, snails and slugs.
Slow worms hibernate under piles of leaves and in tree roots.
They can grow up to half a metre in length and live for up to 20 years.
Although many lizards lay eggs, slow worms birth up to 12 live young, each measuring no more than 4cms long.
To evade predators, they can shed their tail which will keep moving as a distraction.
Spotting slow worms on the Network
Slow worms are widespread throughout England, Scotland and Wales but are naturally absent from Ireland.
They are typically found in tussocky grassland alongside paths.
You’re most likely to spot them feeding at dusk or after rainfall, between March and October.
Our ecologists’ pick of paths with slow worms
- Colliers Way, National Route 24, Somerset
- Lias Line, National Route 41, Warwickshire
- National Route 41, Avonmouth*, Bristol
*Despite the industrial nature of Avonmouth, Sustrans ecologists counted 78 slow worms and 8 grass snakes in just 1.8km of this path during a 2021 survey.
How Sustrans is supporting slow worms
When undertaking maintenance or construction on the paths, we’ll time our work to not disturb reptiles, or responsibly move them before starting.
Where possible, we seed the verges of paths with species-rich wildflowers to attract a bounty of invertebrates for reptiles to forage on.
How you can support slow worms
If you manage a garden or greenspace, allow a quiet corner to grow wild.
A small rotting pile of collected leaves, logs and cuttings will provide space for invertebrates to thrive and in turn feed slow worms.
A larger, undisturbed compost heap will offer slow worms the warmth and safety to both hibernate and birth young.
"Slow Worm by Laurel Bowker" by British Veterinary Association (BVA) is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/
- Be patient and quiet. Watch and listen for signs of life.
- Keep your distance. You could unknowingly alarm or threaten wildlife if you get too close.
- Tread lightly and leave no trace. Never touch, disturb, damage or remove nests or habitats.
- Be considerate to other path users. If stopped, try to position yourself to one side of the path.
- Unless acting under specific guidance, never leave human food out for animals.
- Always remove your litter. And if you feel safe to do so, why not collect others too?
- If you believe any animal is suffering or in danger, get help as soon as it is safe for you to do so.
- The RSPCA recommend local vets and wildlife rehabilitation centres as your first port of call to help wild animals.
- Be prepared in advance of an incident by familiarising yourself with RSPCA guidance and take a note of the phone numbers of some local centres.
So, next time you’re out and about on the Network, why not pause a moment and look out for some of these animals?
Remembering they're on their own important journeys, just like you.