The facts about bird and barn owl surveys

Barn owls and many other wild bird species are legally protected. All birds are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended), including their nests and unhatched eggs during the breeding seasons. In order for you to support your planning application with a sound method statement that protects birds on your site, a walkover assessment will usually suffice. This will investigate habitats and their suitability for nesting, breeding, and overwintering birds.

Recommendations will be made to protect birds in the nesting season as well as for maintaining and enhancing opportunities within the site for local bird populations. Occasionally, Phase 2 surveys to assess the value of the site for breeding birds, wintering waterfowl or other species may be required if the site is deemed suitable for significant populations of such species.

As a last resort, an activity survey or vantage point survey may be required to record information about birds in flight across identified home ranges, to add to data on species, population sizes and location of nest sites.

Barn owls are a protected species in the UK.

Bird survey seasons

Generally, walkover bird surveys and mitigation plans can be undertaken at any time of year, however, vegetation clearance may be seasonally restricted. It is best practice to avoid the period of March to August for vegetation clearance works. If this is not possible, a nesting bird check of the site would be required, and any active nests identified would need to be retained with an appropriate buffer (the size of which is species-specific) until the chicks have fledged.

Breeding bird surveys and wintering bird surveys are only required in special circumstances. Usually, a walkover survey of habitats, nests and UK Biodiversity Action Plan species local to you will be sufficient to support your planning application, with a method statement explaining how birds will be protected without needing a phase 2 survey and European protected species licences.

Phase 1 breeding bird surveys would generally be undertaken between April and June whilst wintering bird surveys would be carried out between September and March.

Care must be taken around nesting birds.

Barn owl surveys

Listed on the RSPB’s Amber List, barn owls (Tyto alba) are considered to be more at risk from population decline due to development than most other birds. Barn owl numbers have declined across the UK in recent years due to the loss of suitable nesting sites, often resulting from land and property developments. Their numbers have not been helped by the fact that on the continent, barn owls don’t have favourable conservation status.

In the UK barn owls are listed as a protected species, and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 makes it illegal for anyone to intentionally kill, capture or injure barn owls. Barn owls and their nest sites are protected from any form of disturbance.

Barn owls can be present in a variety of settings, from older properties in rural areas to any land with trees. If you’re a developer wanting to carry out work that could impact barn owls or potential roost sites, you need a qualified ecologist to survey your site before any work starts. This will allow you to mitigate accordingly if barn owls are present and make sure that your project can progress smoothly.

As there is no Phase 2 barn owl survey, only a scoping survey is required and this can be done at any time of the year. This is advantageous to you as a developer, as there are fewer delays and costs associated with phase 2 surveys and mitigation.

Barn owl surveys: methods and mitigation

A barn owl survey consists of a desk study and physical site inspection to look for evidence of barn owls. During this scoping survey, an ecologist will examine the entire plot including undeveloped areas and existing infrastructure that could provide potential roost sites. Nesting barn owls can be found in tree hollows and buildings near a good supply of prey such as wood mice, field voles and common shrews, so the adjoining land will be examined as essential habitat.

An ecologist will look for evidence such as barn owl nests, nest debris, pellets, droppings, feathers and remains of prey. The equipment used on a survey includes a camera, binoculars, ladders, a torch and a bag to collect samples.

The results of this preliminary scoping survey will determine whether further barn owl surveys are needed. These could include a habitat assessment to find out more about how the area can support barn owls and roost sites.

Barn owl survey reports

Based on the survey results, the ecologist will prepare a report. If barn owls are present on the site, the report will suggest the best mitigation strategies and an accompanying method statement to support the birds and enable the development to go ahead. Mitigation can be as simple as installing barn owl nest boxes or creating loft space to enable barn owls to remain in situ. and safe from any development work. The report may also suggest further surveys.

Barn owl surveys: guidelines

Legislation governing barn owl surveys includes the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act 2006, and the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. These laws are enforced by local authorities and planning applications must meet the requirements of all relevant planning policies. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs also requires standards to be met regarding bird and barn owl surveys, along with influence from Natural England and Natural Resources Wales. The Barn Owl Trust (a registered charity) is also a valuable resource for providing insight into barn owls’ habitat.

When to arrange a barn owl survey

The preliminary barn owl scoping survey can be carried out at any time of year, but as trees are likely to be inspected for nest sites, it’s advisable to avoid carrying out the assessment in the summer when the trees are in full leaf, making it difficult to spot roosting features. Activity surveys are recommended during the latter part of the breeding season (March-August) so surveys are ideal between mid-June and mid-July.

How to get a bird or barn owl survey

The first step is to contact a suitably qualified ecological consultancy like Arbtech. They can tell you what is required and when the survey needs to be done. Getting in touch with an ecological consultancy early on is recommended so that you reduce the chances of delaying your project. Prices for bird and barn owl surveys start from £599.

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