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Newts and bats can be turned to your advantage

James Simpson

There are times when nature appears to stand in the way of much-needed housing and infrastructure development.

But is this always the case and are opportunities being missed? All development works require good planning, and considering ecological issues at the earliest opportunity is always recommended.

Many ecological constraints can be avoided by altering a design or timing the works appropriately. For example, we are increasingly seeing designs that avoid the removal of hedgerows, trees and ponds, which would otherwise require mitigation or compensation. This avoids driving up costs and affecting project programmes.

However, avoidance isn’t always possible and some level of mitigation and compensation will be required.

Digital detection

Thanks to innovative techniques and approaches, ecologists have a growing range of tools they can use to investigate ecological constraints.

Great-crested newts and bats, for example, are protected by European law and their presence can result in lengthy delays in construction projects.

Environmental DNA testing, first approved by Natural England in 2014, has become a well-established technique for detecting whether newts are present. Environmental DNA testing for newts can be considerably less expensive than traditional surveys, and results can be provided in two working days.

The method has been expanded to bats, with tests being developed that can determine which bat species are present based on DNA extracted from their droppings.

“Are we still missing a real opportunity by viewing ecology as merely a constraint on development?”

Projects are starting to see the use of infra-red cameras that provide a more accurate bat count along with more detailed information about roost exit points. Increased levels of data capture are also being met with continuous changes to the statutory licensing system, allowing for more ways of carrying out works under a licence.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes is the recent introduction of district licensing for great-crested newts. This aims to allow construction to take place in certain situations with no need for any survey or mitigation.

Instead, the developer pays a sum to the council and works under the council’s district licence to deliver the work, while the money is invested where the best returns for newt conservation can be achieved.

The Woking district pilot project, now in its second year, has seen a significant investment in creating new habitat for newts within the area, away from proposed development sites.

Wildlife is a selling point

Improved technology and new approaches are certainly a positive development, but are we still missing a real opportunity by viewing ecology as merely a constraint on development?

A survey undertaken by RSPB and Rightmove has shown that seven out of 10 people in the UK would consider paying more for a property that has a wildlife-friendly garden. Other research meanwhile has shown a positive link between people’s wellbeing and having access to green space.

A recent project located on greenbelt land received planning permission partly because the team demonstrated that increasing woodland habitat through the development would promote the local environment.

Rather than being a constraint, ecology could be used as an opportunity to promote and sell both the design concept of a development and the development itself.

James Simpson is associate director at environmental consultancy Adas

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