From barn owls to great bustards, birds are present across a wide range of habitats in the UK, nesting anywhere from brush to buildings. With several bird species having ‘priority species’ status, it’s important that developers and site managers understand bird behaviours, movements and how they may impact on their plans.

Birds: ecology

Birds: Barn owl roosting © Kentish Plumber /
Birds: Barn owl roosting © Kentish Plumber /

Birds are one of our most loved fauna in the UK, with over 400,000 people taking part in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch. Feeding garden birds has risen in popularity in recent decades and has helped to boost bird numbers in urban areas. However, according to the RSPB the UK bird population is still in decline. Birds are a highly mobile group and are common in a wide range of habitats.

The UK supports a wide range of species. Our countryside supports birds of open environments; for example, Norfolk is particularly noted for barn owls and Salisbury plain for stone curlew and great bustard. Our extensive coastline is a particularly important resource for wading birds such as knot and bar-tailed godwit. During winter millions of birds migrate to estuaries forming large flocks. Many of these sites are internationally designated as Ramsar sites and Special Protection Areas for supporting important populations of birds. Even urban environments are host to important birds including Schedule 1 listed peregrine and black redstart that use buildings to nest.

Will birds and their habitat impact on my development plans?

Birds: Skylark's nest of fescue in bilberry, Llangorse Mountain 1971 © Dr Mary Gillham Archive /
Birds: Skylark’s nest of fescue in bilberry, Llangorse Mountain 1971 © Dr Mary Gillham Archive /

For developers, it is important to consider if birds might be present on their sites to avoid disturbing them unnecessarily or having to stop the project if they are discovered mid-works. Birds are active all year round but are especially vulnerable during the breeding season from March to August when they are busy nesting and rearing young.

A number of birds are also ‘priority species’ and are, therefore, afforded additional consideration during the planning process. It is good practice to provide additional site enhancements for priority bird species if they are present or likely to be present within development sites.
For sites where an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) is required, surveys for protected and priority species are required to inform the assessment of impacts. Additional protection, mitigation, enhancement and monitoring measures are often needed to minimise significant impacts to birds as part of an EIA development.

Birds: surveys

Birds: Coastal bird survey © Darragh Furey
Birds: Coastal bird survey © Darragh Furey

Bird surveys or nesting bird checks may be required when the habitat present within a development site is likely to support birds protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

Our specialists are experienced in planning and undertaking bird surveys during the breeding and non-breeding seasons. We are proficient in a range of methodologies including

  • Common bird census (CBC)
  • Vantage point
  • Transects
  • Wetland Bird Surveys (WeBS)
  • Brown and Shepherd methodologies for upland birds.

We advise clients on the scope and methodology of bird surveys needed for different types of project. We can also offer targeted surveys for specific species such as nightjar, black redstart, barn owl and other protected species. Following the survey work, we can undertake the required scientific and statistical analysis – for example, territory mapping, population assessments and collision risk assessments for wind farms – where necessary.

Once planning permission has been granted, or for sites where no consent is needed, ‘nesting bird checks’ are often required prior to or during vegetation clearance if works are to be undertaken during the breeding bird season, to ensure legal and planning policy compliance.

Birds: legal protection

All wild birds, their nests and eggs are legally protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended). This legislation makes it an offence to injure or kill a bird, or to damage or destroy a nest, when it is in use. It is therefore important to establish if birds are using your site for nesting and if they are likely to be disturbed by any planned works. Furthermore, birds listed under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended), such as barn owl and kingfisher, are afforded additional legal protection, making it an offence to disturb these species during the breeding season.

Licensing requirements for birds

Birds listed under Schedule 1 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act receive extra protection against disturbance when nesting. Natural England can approve licences to disturb Schedule 1 birds at the nest under certain circumstances, for example, for barn owl nest box monitoring. Often it is easy to avoid licensing requirements by timing works outside the breeding season to avoid disturbance to Schedule 1 species.

Birds: mitigation

Birds: Thomson’s habitats team installing a barn owl nest box for a client in Littlehampton © Matt Wisby /
Birds: Thomson’s habitats team installing a barn owl nest box for a client in Littlehampton © Matt Wisby /

Disturbance to nesting birds can be avoided easily by timing works outside of the breeding season or by avoiding the areas where birds are nesting. When this is not feasible, we can offer nesting bird checks or ecological watching briefs to ensure that any active nests are not disturbed by works. We also offer advice for bird box installation and post-development monitoring of bird populations.

How we can help

If you think you have birds present on your site, or if you’re in the initial stages of development planning and think there are environmental considerations to address, we can arrange a preliminary ecological appraisal for you. If necessary, we carry out bird surveys, nesting bird checks, and any further mitigation work, to ensure you’re environmentally compliant.

Arrange a preliminary ecological appraisal with us today

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