Network Rail’s tree felling programme is to be reviewed over concerns it is harming wildlife, the government says.

Rail Minister Jo Johnson said the review would consider whether Network Rail could use alternative approaches to keep rail lines clear of foliage.

Network Rail, which maintains 20,000 miles of track, says incidents caused by vegetation cost over £100m in 2017.

It said it welcomed the review as it looks to “strike the right balance” between safety and the environment.

In a statement, Network Rail said its policies had been developed over many years and “most of the time” it gets it right, “but sometimes we don’t”.

A petition calling for Network Rail to stop chopping down millions of trees across the country has attracted over 60,000 signatures.

It was set up following a row in Bournemouth over the felling of trackside trees.

Mr Johnson said he understood the concerns of members of the public, as well as bird conservation charity the RSPB, adding that Network Rail had made “significant progress” in the past four years.

In announcing the review, he also told the company to suspend all felling “except where it is safety critical” during the current nesting season, which lasts from February until August.

“It is clear that Network Rail wants to get this right and there is a gold standard of vegetation management on some lines,” he said.

“But I am concerned that tree management is carried out during the nesting season, when it can have the greatest effect on our wildlife.

“It is also clear more can be done to make sure this gold standard applies across the network.”

‘We increase biodiversity’

Network Rail denied a report in the Guardian which claimed the company was planning an “enhanced level of clearance” of trees from 2019 to 2024.

It said its policy was largely unchanged since 2004.

Chief executive, Mark Carne, said there were environmental as well as safety reasons for removing trees alongside railway lines.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We have to chop down trees that are at risk of landing on the railway and causing danger to rail users.

“We have about 13 million trees on our 20,000 miles of track in total and we have to manage those trees very carefully, but what we want to try to do is to enhance the biodiversity of the habitats of the railway.

“We put in wild flowers and grassland which then create opportunities for different species to grow, different kind of wildlife to grow – and we can increase biodiversity”, he added.

An RSPB spokesman said it welcomed the suspension of Network Rail’s tree felling programme, pending a review.

“Alongside minimising harm, we’d call on Network Rail to go further and look at maximising the value of their considerable land holding for wildlife,” he said.