All the facts about reptile surveys

Adders are one of the UK’s native reptiles.

Why might I need a Reptile Survey?

The six native species of British reptiles have legal protection due to their diminishing numbers, which has been caused largely by human activity, development, and the loss of suitable habitat. Of these, four common reptile species are protected by law from being deliberately killed, injured or sold, under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) and the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017. These reptiles include the adder (Vipera berus), slow worm (Anguis fragilis), common lizard (Zootoca vivipara) and grass snake (Natrix helvetica).

The two rarer species of reptiles in the UK are the sand lizard (Lacerta agilis) and the smooth snake (Coronella austriaca), which are almost only found in areas around the south coast as their habitat consists of sand dunes and heathland. Both feature in a list of protected species under the European Directive and the UK’s Habitats Regulations 2017 which restricts disturbing them or their habitat: a European Protected Species License (EPSL) will almost certainly be needed to move them. Fines for breaking the law relating to these reptiles can extend to £5,000 per offence and a prison sentence of up to six months can be handed out.

Suitable reptile habitat

Many common reptile species such as grass snakes live in rough grassland, while smooth snakes, sand snakes, and sand lizards are basking animals that enjoy sand dunes, heathland, and drier conditions normally found in areas around the south coast. If smooth snakes or sand lizards are found on your site, you will almost certainly need an (EPSL) to move them. The restrictions on the other four reptile species are less strict and it isn’t as difficult to achieve a successful planning application.

Slow worms are native to the UK.

Reptile surveys

Designed to identify suitable habitats for supporting reptiles, confirm whether there are reptiles present, and calculate present species and population size, reptile surveys have two phases. They commonly take place on brownfield sites, greenfield sites, sand dunes, rough grassland, woodland, heathland, and moorland where many reptiles live.

Phase 1 (Walkover) Reptile Survey (or Scoping Survey)

This assessment can take place at different times throughout the year. It involves an experienced ecologist making a site visit and assessing the likely presence of reptiles by looking for suitable reptile habitats of specific ecological importance for supporting them. This survey also involves a desk study which involves checking with local record centres for survey data relating to any protected species recorded in the surrounding area.

Phase 2 Reptile Presence/Absence Survey

If a local planning authority requests this survey, it can only be done at certain times of the year, unlike the preliminary ecological assessment. Depending on the reptiles’ activity level which is determined by suitable weather conditions, they are usually carried out in April, May and September.

The phase 2 reptile survey involves placing reptile refugia (often roofing felt, corrugated iron sheets, bitumen, or carpet tiles) at the site, under which reptiles will take shelter from predators and use to control their temperature. The ecologist will place the artificial refugia in a grid-like pattern across the site, and their location is logged using a GPOS handheld device. The artificial refugia are then monitored on at least seven different times to record the activity and take photographs.

Common lizards.

Reptile survey report

If native reptile species are found, an experienced ecologist will produce a reptile survey methodology for the local planning authority based on survey data from the assessment and a reptile recording scheme. It will explain how the reptiles will be contained or excluded from your site for the time that they might be at risk, such as during demolition or building work.

Mitigation measures

If reptiles are found on a proposed development site, a strategy will be needed to avoid reckless killing, injuring or endangering the species present. A mitigation hierarchy will be used: the highest level will be to leave reptiles in their existing habitat by altering development proposals.

If this is not possible, the mitigation strategy could involve compensation measures: if habitats must be destroyed, they could be replaced with new habitats inside or outside the site to which reptiles could be moved. Such new habitat should be of comparable size to the original, and safe from development. A habitat management scheme might be required and reptile fencing may also be installed to prevent them from returning.

As a last resort, experienced ecologists holding the necessary licences for capturing reptiles may also carry out hand searches of any good quality habitats on the site and physically move individual reptiles to safety before development work starts.

Reptile survey guidelines

Under UK legislation, reptiles have legal protection via the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 as amended. While both Acts apply to the adder, common lizard, grass snake, and slow worm, the second Act also applies to rare species of reptile such as the smooth snake and sand lizard. The two rarer species, the smooth snake and sand lizard, are further protected under the Habitats Regulations 2017. Public bodies such as Natural England and Natural Resources Wales may also update survey guidelines.

How to get a reptile survey

If your development plans are likely to involve a reptile survey, you need to contact a suitably qualified ecological consultancy like Arbtech. They can explain what is required and when the survey will be done. As they have full protection, reptile conservation is high on the priority list of local planning authorities, so getting in touch with an ecological consultancy early on is recommended to reduce the chances of delaying your future development plans.

To give you an idea of the price of reptile surveys, walkover survey prices are from £399 and phase 2 surveys, which involve several visits to the site, start from £1899.

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