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Protect and prosper

By Sarah Yarwood-Lovett, Nadine Clark and Rosie Whicheloe
Understanding when to do an ecology survey, and making sure that it is done early, can turn what many see as a liability into an opportunity.

Ecology surveys often make the press when they are costly and cause delays, but these problems often reveal more about poor project management than the cost of safeguarding our natural heritage. Ecologists, protected species and the collection of survey data rarely cost the millions of pounds that headlines allege. But failing to seek ecological advice early can lead to the late discovery of issues and the subsequent delays to site works, which can become extremely expensive. This needn’t be the case; effective project management can prevent delays by providing ecological input at the earliest stage of a project.

Seasonal surveys for seasonal habits
Identifying the potential ecological issues of your site early is critical for two reasons. Firstly, the seasonal nature of many species restricts when surveys can be carried out and secondly, some surveys require multiple visits within that restricted timeframe.
So the key things to determine are:
•  what species may be supported by the habitats on site;
•  the appropriate survey needed to identify presence or likely absence, and
•  the right time of year to conduct the appropriate survey for that species.
A Protected Species Survey Calendar is a useful tool that makes it easy to reference the appropriate survey periods for commonly occurring legally protected species in England. For example, great crested newts spend most of the year in scrub and woodland. But for the 12 weeks between mid-March and mid-June they breed in ponds, and it is in this short time that surveys for newts should be carried out. Newt surveys involve up to six repeat visits for each pond within this 12 week period, and weather conditions have to be warm and dry. Contacting an ecologist as early as possible, and definitely before the season starts, ensures that there is time for contingencies such as bad weather.

Site assessment – towards a landscape ecology
Species may potentially use a site for a number of different activities, such as foraging, hibernating, breeding, sheltering or commuting. It is important that these activities are not affected by the development to the extent that they could threaten the conservation status of the species population. Looking at the wider landscape from an ecology perspective provides the context for the habitats on site and enables assessments about their potential to support protected species to be made. In making these assessments, an ecologist will look at the wider landscape using aerial photographs, Ordnance Survey maps and biological data sets, such as the Multi-Agency Geographic Information for the Countryside (MAGIC, 2013), for a number of different features including asking:

• Are there any habitats of ecological value within 1km of the site (such as designated and priority habitat sites)?
• Is the site near any barriers for species dispersal?
• Are there any ponds or wet ditches within 500m of the site and are they connected to the site by semi-natural habitats or hedgerows?
• How intact is the hedgerow network?
• Is there ancient woodland within 5km and/or connected to the site?
• Are there other habitat corridors that connect to the site, such as railways, road embankments, and brownfield sites?
• Are there any watercourses within 800m and/or linked to the site?
• Are there any mature trees on or adjacent to the site?
• Is there rough, unmanaged grassland, scrub or rubble (concrete, brick, brash) piles on site?
• Are there habitat mosaics on or adjacent
to the site to support the species’ seasonal requirements?

Ecological protection is a legal requirement
Protected species are safeguarded through planning policy as well as through European and British law. The various levels of legal protection usually reflect the rarity of the species, which then affects assessments of impacts and what constitute legal (or illegal) activities on site. The historical updates and revisions of the various types of legislation can make the different restrictions confusing. A list of
the main points is provided below:

• European Protected Species (EPS) have high levels of protection which extend to their resting places. Where these species would be disturbed, or their resting places damaged, destroyed or obstructed, a licence from Natural England is needed;
• Natural England Licences take 30 working days to process and an allowance of time to prepare and implement the licence, as well as to complete the surveys to inform it, is required;
• for species protected by British law, such as water voles, the protection is similar but less restrictive;
• breaches of legislation can carry hefty penalties, including custodial sentences and fines per animal, not just per offence.

Table 1 provides key information on the commonly occurring protected species in England, their legal status and a check list of the sorts of habitats where they are found. Some additional information is given on typical dispersal distances, which are often referenced in guidance documents, but caution is needed as these can vary depending on availability of good foraging habitat, habitat connectivity and population dynamics. 

Once a client is made aware of the potential ecological issues on site, they should seek tailored ecological advice for the species concerned, to ensure appropriate action is taken and potential breaches of legislation avoided. In addition, they should be made aware that the time between purchasing land and obtaining planning permission can sometimes enable the site to become more ecologically valuable (e.g. uncut grass and broken windows can increase the site’s ability to support reptiles and bats).

It is also worth mentioning that the legal protection afforded to species can bring substantial weighting to an argument to retain a feature of ecological value, compared to the same feature on just landscape grounds. Therefore, legal requirements to protect the ecology of a site can provide a supporting tool to reinforce the argument to protect the landscape along with other ecosystem functions.

The ‘Avoid – Mitigate – Compensate’ Sequence
In considering design options, an early understanding of the ecological value of features on and surrounding the site enables impacts to be designed out, and allows the detailed design to progress with an awareness of the needs of maintaining ecosystem functionality. Preventing direct and indirect effects on features of ecological value is the best option as this negates the need for further measures to be taken.

For example, a canal or line of trees may provide a striking feature in an urban setting and from a design point of view and may benefit from lighting for safety and/or visual effect. But the same feature may also provide a foraging resource for light-averse bat species. Lighting the feature would make the bats avoid it and its function as a feeding or navigation resource would be lost. Depending on the availability of other similar features in the area this may have a significant effect on the local bat population. If the feature can remain unlit then the impact will be avoided.

Where lighting can’t be avoided, the next best option is to mitigate. This could be achieved through minor design changes – perhaps low-level lighting (sunk into the pathway or directional lighting) could be used to limit light spill onto the habitat.

Lux levels and different lighting types (depending on the design objectives and the bat species present) can help reach a satisfactory compromise between design ambitions and ecological function. Where this can’t be achieved, compensatory foraging habitats would need to be provided in
the locality.

The preferred, and invariably the cheapest, option is always to avoid impacts on wildlife in the first place. If mitigation cannot be avoided then design options should be considered and evaluated by an ecologist. Mitigation measures may be secured through planning conditions, but should always be proportionate to the impacts and the value of the ecological feature being conserved. The main problems in dealing with ecological impacts arise when advice is sought after a design has been finalised, limiting the capacity to accommodate changes that would avoid or reduce the impact on that species.

In cases where mitigation is not possible, for example because of site constraints, the only solution may be to provide a compensatory habitat off site. This can be expensive and time-consuming. A suitable site has to be found, and time allowed for habitats to be planted and established, which can delay projects.

So early engagement of an ecologist can help avoid impacts or enable effective mitigation to be designed seamlessly into the scheme.

If you consider ecology early on and avoid impacts or at least mitigate them within the design, then ecological requirements can bring additional functions and benefits to the designed landscape. Successful partnerships will bring good press and better places for people. These successes should help demonstrate that, through early consideration, the pitfalls that make the headlines can be avoided.
Table 1: Key information on the commonly occurring protected species. Species highlighted in red are protected under European and British law. Those highlighted in black are protected under British law.

Protected species Legislation Habitats
Bats (all 18 species) Fully protected under UK and European law. Roost in all types of buildings and trees. Landscape networks of woodland, trees, hedgerows and water-bodies are used for foraging and commuting.
Breeding birds All species are protected while nests are active. Certain species are protected from disturbance during the breeding season. Trees, hedgerows, scrub, shrubs, and in occupied buildings.
Great crested newts Fully protected under UK and European law. Breed in ponds and ditches in spring. Found in terrestial habitats under leaf litter, soil and rough vegetation in spring / summer, hibernating in soil, rubble, mammal burrows over winter. Can be found quite far from a pond (up to 500m).
Palmate and smooth newts Protected in UK from injury or killing only. Similar habitat to that of great crested newts.
Reptiles (6 species) Smooth snake and sand lizard are fully protected under UK and European Law. The remaining four widespread species are protected in the UK from injury or killing only. Smooth snakes and sand lizards are very rare and found on heathland only. Grass snakes, slow worms, adders and common lizards are found in scrub, rough grassland, rubble piles and railway ballast. They particularly like south-facing slopes with open vegetation. They hibernate in scrub, rubble piles and in woodland.
Otters Fully protected under UK and European law. Otters use all types of water-bodies (marine and freshwater, still and flowing) for foraging. Woodland, dense scrub and tall ruderal vegetation within 800m of a water body are used for resting and raising their young.
Water voles Fully protected under UK law only. All freshwater (still or flowing) water-bodies. Burrows dug in steep earth banks. Shaded stretches less suitable due to lack of marginal vegetation.
Hazel dormouse Fully protected under UK and European law. All kinds of woodland, including conifers, hedgerow networks, scrub and heathland. Hazel does not need to be present.
Badgers Protection from persecution only. Forage in all habitats, including gardens. Slopes in woodland or hedgerows are suitable habitat for setts, particularly on chalk on railway embankments, or under electricity pylons and even on active construction sites.

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