What you need to know about ecological surveys

Wetland landscape

What are ecological surveys?

A vital component of many planning applications, ecological surveys can provide a range of information about a site’s suitability for a proposed development. They are particularly needed when a scheme is proposed which could potentially impact the existing biodiversity on site. An ecological walkover survey can assess your site for animals, habitat and valuable plant life to give the local planning authority information on which to base a decision on whether development would adversely affect protected species.

Why do I need an ecological or habitat survey?

When determining a planning application, the local planning officer must consider how the applicant plans to conserve and enhance habitat and protected species on the proposed development site. If an ecological survey is available at pre-application stage discussions, it can be helpful in demonstrating that you are aware of policy requirements, understand potential ecological constraints and that supporting protected species is part of your design process.

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 surveys or state that the degree of risk to protected species and habitats is tolerably low, which removes doubts about potential for habitat loss or impact on species. The report can also contain details of any scheme benefits, appropriate mitigation, ecological improvement features or compensatory habitat enhancements. Your local planning authority is legally obliged to seek biodiversity gain through the planning process.

How is a habitat survey carried out?

An ecological desk-study

This is the first stage: the ecological consultant will collect information such as whether the proposed development will impact upon any designated nature conservation sites or specific habitats; they will examine species records and information, such as species distribution. 

A walkover survey

In this second stage, the ecological consultant will visit the site and index all the observed species of plant and habitat present. An essential part of this survey involves paying regard to any legally protected species which may be 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 planning authority, a local wildlife trust or the National Biodiversity Network.

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

Wooded scrubland.

Types of ecology survey:

Preliminary Ecological Appraisal (PEA)

This is the most common baseline ecological survey; it is a standardised method of appraisal and is suitable for most sites and developments. A scoping exercise, it is designed to note important factors relating to biodiversity value on your site such as protected habitats. It will confirm any ecological constraints requiring further survey evaluations.

As part of this 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 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 survey will be more relevant.

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 site and a commentary of 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 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, the report will make recommendations for further survey work and/or mitigation, in line with national guidelines and where considered appropriate by the surveyor.

In the report, the surveyor 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 PEA be carried out?

This survey can be undertaken at any time of year, with an optimum timeframe of late March to mid-October to enable 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 work.

European Protected Species Licence (EPSL) mitigation licence

These are licences 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 – on purpose 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.

The 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 improved environment.

Japanese knotweed.

Invasive species

Specialist surveys may be needed to determine the presence or likely absence of species such as Japanese knotweed, 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, 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.

Himalayan balsam in bloom.

Problematic Species Audit

Carried out ideally between April and September when most plants are visible, this is a walkover survey where an ecologist will map and note problematic species. This survey often forms an essential part of planning determination.

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. This survey may be required by planning condition.

Advanced Biosecurity Planning and expert witness services

Advanced plans and court expert witness services may occasionally be required.

How to get an ecological survey or BREEAM assessment

The first step is to contact a suitably qualified ecological consultancy like Arbtech. They will be able to tell you what is required and when the survey will be done. Getting in touch with an ecological consultancy early on is recommended so that you reduce the chances of delaying your project.

A PEA 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. A Japanese knotweed survey costs from £899.

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