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What you need to know about ecological surveys

Wetland landscapes can contain protected habitat.

What is an ecological survey?

A vital component of many planning applications, ecological surveys can provide a range of information about a proposed site’s suitability for a development project. An ecological survey is needed when a scheme could have a potential ecological impact on the existing habitats and biodiversity on site, especially if notable species may be present.

While ecological surveys come in a variety of categories to satisfy different needs, in any survey, trained ecological consultants will inspect the whole site, noting important habitats and species in the area at the time of the survey.

The initial survey is an ecological walkover survey that can assess your site for the potential presence of protected species, priority habitats, and valuable plants that may indicate potential constraints with your development site. The findings gathered at this site survey will give the local planning authority information on which to base their decision about the environmental impact of your development. In the UK, protected species include bats (and their roosting sites), newts, badgers, barn owls, birds, dormice, invertebrates, fish, natterjack toads, otters, reptiles, water voles and white-clawed crayfish as well as many valuable or rare plants.

Ecological consultants will then use a mitigation hierarchy to decide on the best approach to take to retain the existing habitat and ecological conditions present. The priority is avoiding damage to the habitat, and if that’s not possible, the second best option would be to minimise harm to valuable features by altering the proposed development plans. The third option, known as restoration or rehabilitation, involves the ecological surveyor changing part of the site back to its original condition, increasing biodiversity as a result. The last resort comprises offsetting work to compensate for biodiversity losses by creating new habitats outside the proposed development site.

The final part of the surveying process involves the ecological consultants writing up a report detailing their findings from the ecology survey. This will include observations about the site, ecological features and recommendations for any other survey work. The completed report will give local authorities all the information needed to support a planning application.

Why do I need a habitat or ecological survey?

Ecological surveys play an important role in any land or property development for many reasons. When determining a planning application, the local planning officer must consider how you as the applicant plan to conserve and enhance habitat and protected species on the proposed site. If an ecological survey is available at pre-application stage discussions, it’s a helpful way of demonstrating that you are aware of policy requirements, understand the potential ecological constraints, and that supporting protected species is part of your design process. It’s your means of proving that you can meet the minimum requirements needed to achieve a successful planning application.

Ecology surveys are needed to satisfy planning authorities

Local authorities hold binding environmental targets and a developer must demonstrate awareness of the ecological impact of their proposed development, particularly on rare, valuable or delicate protected habitats. The ecology report will provide the information needed to satisfy the local council’s planning department, usually providing evidence that there is no reason to prevent the planning officer from granting planning permission for the site in question.

Ecology surveys are needed for compliance

Importantly, ecology survey work will often be necessary to ensure that your project complies with statutory wildlife legislation independent of the planning process. It also means that the planning officer cannot reject your application on grounds of insufficient information and must proceed with their determination.

The ecology report will provide recommendations for further ecology surveys or state that the degree of risk to protected habitats and species is tolerably low, which removes doubts about the potential for habitat loss or ecological impact on species. The ecology report can also contain details of any scheme benefits, the appropriate mitigation hierarchy provided, ecological improvement features, or compensatory habitat enhancements. Local planning authorities are legally obliged to seek biodiversity net gain (BNG) through the planning process.

Biodiversity Net Gain

If you’re seeking planning permission for your site, you will probably need a Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) plan. BNG is a concept designed to ensure the improvement of biodiversity in an area following development, and it’s becoming mandatory for development schemes in England from January 2024, adding to planning requirements.

It means that developers must factor improved biodiversity into their pre-development plans. Mandatory BNG means not only retaining habitat where possible and replacing habitat loss but also increasing the overall biodiversity by 10% through enhancing habitat. The net gains must be maintained for at least 30 years.

A specialist biodiversity net gain consultant can calculate an area’s biodiversity unit score by using the Biodiversity Metric 4.0 calculation tool and devise a plan to retain or create new suitable habitat where possible.

How are habitat surveys carried out?

An ecological desk study

This is the initial ecology survey stage: the ecology consultant will collect information such as whether the development proposals will impact any designated conservation sites or specific habitats. The desk study will involve examining species records and information, such as species distribution. 

An ecological walkover survey

In this second stage of the ecological assessment, an ecology surveyor will visit the site and index all the observed habitats and particular species present within the site boundary. An essential part of this ecological survey involves investigating whether any protected species are known to live in the locality.

An ecological assessment is produced including a habitat map, detailing habitat types along with notes about specific areas of biodiversity value. This information relates to the biological records data required from bodies such as the local council, a local wildlife trust or the National Biodiversity Network.

This data is collated into a report format, enabling the ecological consultant to grade your site according to ecological issues and any potential risks posed to species and valuable habitats present. This ecological survey assesses the value of habitat on your site: sites with higher nature conservation value will need stronger justification for the development proposals to be able to progress, along with possible further surveys to better evaluate the site’s ecological features.

Wooded scrubland can offer suitable habitat to support protected species.

Types of ecology surveys:

There are many types of ecological assessments designed to suit a range of circumstances. The most common type of ecological survey is a:

Preliminary Ecological Appraisal (PEA) or Phase 1 habitat survey

With a phase 1 habitat survey, ecological consultants will carry out a desk study and inspect the entirety of a site for all ecological and environmental factors present. It will confirm any ecological constraints requiring further ecological surveys or protected species surveys. A digital image of the site will be produced using a geographical information system (GIS) for accuracy, and survey findings will be added to it.

A baseline ecological survey, a preliminary ecological appraisal is a standardised method of appraisal and is suitable for most sites and developments. Ecological consultants will visit the site and undertake various surveys. A scoping exercise, it is designed to note important factors relating to the biodiversity value on your site such as priority habitats, and will prompt the need for further surveys if ecological features such as protected species of animal, or valuable or invasive plant species are found.

As part of a preliminary ecological appraisal or phase 1 habitat survey, you will require biological records data which usually will be purchased from a third party such as a record centre or wildlife trust; the cost of this will vary according to the location and size of the site. This cost is the only disbursement you should expect to incur at this stage. Before instructing a PEA, it is advisable to talk to an ecological consultancy to confirm that this is the correct survey; it may be that a more specific ecology survey will be more relevant.

The ecology survey process

The PEA results in a scientific report, a habitat map with identified ecological constraints, a species list, a summary of legislation that protects species relevant to your proposed development site, and a commentary on the biological records as they relate to your scheme.

The site visit is carried out in daylight hours, and it can rule out the need for further ecological surveys if the ecological value is found to be low or negligible. If evidence of recent activity or features suitable for protected species cannot be confirmed as absent during the protected species survey, the report will make recommendations for further survey work and/or ecological mitigation, in line with national guidelines and where considered appropriate by the ecological surveyor.

In the report, the ecological consultant will make recommendations such as ensuring that any vegetation or building clearance takes place outside the months of March to August to prevent disturbing breeding birds during the nest-building season.

If this is not possible, appropriate mitigation may be suggested such as checking vegetation before any clearance work, and requiring any nests found to have an appropriate buffer zone placed around them until chicks have fledged.

When can a Preliminary Environmental Appraisal be carried out?

Ecological surveyors can carry out this survey at any time of year, but optimal periods are from late March to mid-October to enable the identification of less common flowering species. If a survey is carried out outside of the optimum window it will be considered to be sub-optimal by the local planning authority and will need greater justification of the findings and possible further survey investigation work.

Further ecology surveys that you might need to support a planning application

As well as vegetation surveys and habitat surveys, you may be required to undertake ecological assessments for the following animal species:

  • mammal surveys which include otter surveys, water vole surveys and dormouse surveys

European Protected Species Licence (EPSL) mitigation licence

These are licenses granted under the Conservation Regulations that are obtained after planning permission is granted. You need a mitigation licence if your work will have impacts on European protected species that would otherwise be illegal. This includes:

  • capturing, killing, disturbing or injuring them – on purpose or by not taking enough care.
  • damaging or destroying their breeding or resting places – even accidentally.
  • obstructing access to their resting or sheltering places – deliberately or by not taking enough care.

BREEAM assessments

A method of rating a building’s environmental performance, BREEAM, the Building Research Establishment Assessment Method for buildings, sets industry best practices for sustainable design. Building to BREEAM standards helps minimise environmental impact. An assessment is made of a building to give a score and rating based on credits awarded for different areas of construction, design and location.

Breeam assessments’ rating scale is pass, good, very good, excellent and outstanding. Certified assessors check environmental, social and economic sustainability performance using standards developed by Building Research Establishment. Buildings meeting the standards are more sustainable environments, helping protect natural resources and enable more attractive property investments. BREEAM benefits include better air quality in homes and workplaces, lighting and an improved environment.

Japanese knotweed.

Invasive species surveys

Specialist vegetation surveys may be needed to determine the presence or likely absence of species such as giant hogweed, Himalayan balsam and injurious weeds along with site investigation and mapping.

Advice can be given on control and management including control programmes for problematic fauna, rare plants, desk studies, clerk of works, supervision of contractors and audit services, biosecurity plans, expert witness services, non-native species monitoring, training, Environment Agency standard Japanese knotweed management plans, and controlled waste advice.

The invasive plant species Himalayan balsam in bloom.

Problematic Species Audit

Carried out ideally between April and September when most plants are visible, this is a survey where an ecology consultant will map and note problematic species. These ecological surveys often form an essential part of the assessment process for determining planning permission.

Problematic Species Management Plans

If problematic species are identified, a management plan may be needed to demonstrate how the infestation can be isolated, controlled or eradicated. These ecological surveys may be required by a planning condition.

Advanced Biosecurity Planning and expert witness services

Advanced plans and court expert witness services may occasionally be required by a planning department.

How to get an ecological survey or BREEAM assessment

The first step is to contact a suitably qualified ecological consultancy with extensive experience like Arbtech. They will be able to tell you the necessary surveys you need to comply with UK law and the Environment Act, and create a bespoke quote based on your individual details, including a date for when your ecology survey will be done. Getting in touch with an ecological consultancy is recommended so that you avoid costly delays impacting your project. Having the right project team around you to collate all the information will give you the best chance of your scheme going ahead in a timely manner and ensuring planning success. Identifying potential constraints as early as possible will enable you to work on ecological mitigation measures that will comply with the relevant legislation and satisfy planning authorities.

Ecological survey equipment

General equipment includes personal protective equipment (PPE), site plans and ladders, along with more advanced equipment such as anemometers, endoscopes and survey sheets. Other equipment may be needed depending on the type of assessment. For example, if the EcIA report from an Ecological Impact Assessment results in the need for a National Vegetation Classification (NVC), a smartphone would be needed to access an ordnance map. If a newt survey calls for an environmental DNA (eDNA) assessment, ecologists would require waterproof gear for working in ponds and an eDNA kit.

Ecological survey calendar

It’s important to plan ahead to make sure you get surveys carried out at the correct time of year, otherwise, you may risk derailing the timeframes of your development project. There are certain times of the year when protected species surveys can take place, including an optimal time that’s the most desirable. In the winter months, few surveys take place, with bats and breeding birds creating roosting sites in cave-like spaces and complex tree structures or creating suitable habitat types during this period. It’s crucial to book the survey you need well in advance to make sure the relevant dates work for you.

Ecology survey cost

A preliminary ecological appraisal PEA usually costs from £599 and includes a free scoping bat survey assessment; a Problematic Species Audit costs from £599; Problematic Species Management Plans are from £999 and Advanced Biosecurity Planning and expert witness services are priced from £599 per day.

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