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Protecting the humble dormouse from extinction using AI and machine learning

Black and white image of a dormice camera trap
Credit: ZSL - Dormice camera trap image

Network Rail's vast lands are home to a surprising variety of creatures, but few are as captivating as the adorable dormouse. Now, thanks to a collaborative effort between Network Rail, Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Google Cloud, these tiny charmers are being captured on film in a bid to better understand and protect them.

The project, focused on the South of the United Kingdom region, aims to develop innovative ways to monitor these elusive species in often hard-to-reach areas alongside the railway lines. Partnering with the People's Trust for Endangered Species, the team deployed special equipment at a dormouse reintroduction site near Calke Abbey in Derbyshire. This high-tech arsenal of camera traps and audio sensors has since captured a treasure trove of images, videos and even sound recordings.

All this data is stored and analyzed on Google Cloud using AI and machine learning models that promise to save Network Rail a significant amount of time and money compared to traditional methods, like manually checking nest boxes throughout the season.

But why all the fuss over these little creatures? Well, other than being incredibly cute, dormice are a protected species sadly facing extinction in the UK. While they're known to inhabit specific stretches of railway lines, particularly in the South and near the Welsh border, their rarity makes them vulnerable.

Aline Gomes, Network Rail's ecologist, emphasizes the importance of understanding wildlife surrounding the railway for sustainable management. She credits collaboration with ZSL for developing safe, remote monitoring techniques, providing valuable insights to better manage the lineside habitat for dormice as well as other species.

Rachael Kemp, ZSL Project Manager, echoes this sentiment. She highlights their cutting-edge technology as an exciting, cost-effective way to study dormice near railways. She explains how collected images, videos and audio are used to train algorithms on Google Cloud, enabling Network Rail to pinpoint actively used nest boxes and easily monitor them over time. This valuable data will be crucial in understanding the impact of maintenance and conservation efforts on these beloved creatures.

The project goes beyond mere observation. Network Rail's biodiversity strategy manager, Dr. Neil Strong, highlights the importance of managing linesides not just for safety but also for wildlife. These corridors are vital for dormice and others who struggle to move between habitats. It's not just about letting things grow wild. We need to find a balance — cutting back trees that pose risks while creating suitable habitats away from the tracks, ensuring these creatures have the cover they need.

So the next time you hear a train rumble past, remember the tiny dormice that might be peeking out from the undergrowth, their secret lives now a little less mysterious thanks to this innovative partnership.

If you'd like to learn more about how Network Rail is using its land to boost biodiversity, visit their website.

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