Ecological studies and surveys

Part 4: Surveys and assessment

Chapter 11: Ecological studies and surveys

Why surveys are required

Ecological surveys are surveys for habitats and species. Ecological surveys are carried out for a variety of reasons but, when undertaken in association with developments, the primary objective is usually to identify any potential constraints to the development resulting from the presence of important habitats or species.

Other objectives may be to inform an evaluation of the nature conservation value of the site, to facilitate an assessment of the significance of the impacts of the development for biodiversity, to inform the masterplanning process and to help identify opportunities to enhance the biodiversity of the site.

From a developer’s perspective, there are perhaps 3 main reasons why ecological surveys are undertaken:

  • The development requires assessment under the EIA Regulations
  • It is anticipated that the planning authority will require information on biodiversity to validate and assess the planning application; or
  • The organisation undertaking development wishes to ensure that its obligations under UK wildlife law are met

Timing of surveys

The timing of ecological surveys is crucial. Nearly all species have some seasonality to their life cycle and as a consequence there are often times of the year when it is inappropriate to undertake a survey for a particular species. For example, great crested newts hibernate underground in the winter and there are no survey techniques that can be used to detect them at this time of year. However, in spring this species congregates in breeding ponds and is relatively easy to detect.

It is usually better to undertake ecological surveys as early on as possible in the development process. This is because ecological issues can be costly and take many months or even years to resolve. One of the most important factors is to undertake survey work early enough so that any protected species mitigation that may be required can be properly accounted for and effectively planned.

Timing information by species is discussed in the species survey section of this handbook and can also be seen in the Thomson survey calendar.

Survey validity

The ecological surveys recommended by an ecological consultant are usually based on guidelines produced by the Institute of Environmental Management in 1995, the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management in 2007 and various other organisations, such as Natural England and the Bat Conservation Trust.

The level of effort put into ecological surveys is important and should follow the guidelines on survey effort that statutory bodies would expect for many protected species. In general, the level of effort specified in such guidelines is considered sufficient to determine the presence or likely absence of a particular species. Fewer survey visits or a reduced survey area may not give a reliable indication of species presence and the survey may be rejected by the regulatory body.

Planning requirements

The undertaking of ecological surveys sometimes appears as a planning condition or a draft planning condition. This is not best practice, as nature conservation, including the presence of protected species and priority species, is a material consideration in the determination of planning applications. If government guidance is correctly followed, the planning authority should gather together all of the relevant ecological information before granting planning permission. Therefore, the applicant should be asked to submit ecological information with the planning application or shortly thereafter.

Planning conditions and other agreements should relate to mitigation and compensation to offset the impacts of the development, and monitoring and management arrangements after the construction of the development, rather than the carrying out of survey work.

When a protected or priority species is found on site…

The presence of a protected species on a proposed development site has important implications because of both its legal protection and the consideration that must be given to it in the planning process. National planning policy dictates that the local planning authority should take the presence of protected species into account when considering a planning application (i.e. their presence is a material consideration). An important point is that the LPA should have full knowledge about the presence of a protected species on a development site before planning permission is granted, therefore surveys for protected species should not be a subject of planning conditions.

Even if the LPA does not request information on protected species, it is usually in the applicant’s interests to determine the presence of protected species on site as early as possible in the development process so that unnecessary delays are avoided.

The presence of a protected species on the site does not usually mean that a development proposal will be refused planning permission. When planning permission is given for developments on sites that support protected species, the wildlife legislation still applies and planning conditions may also be attached specifying compliance with the legislation as a minimum. The wildlife legislation also applies when permitted development is carried out.

Government Policy is that priority species should be treated in a similar way to protected species when determining planning applications.

Thomson’s ecology handbook

This online version of the Thomson’s ecology handbook provides a general overview of current wildlife legislation* and is aimed at helping project managers understand and plan for ecology from the start.

Find out more

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