Ten years on from the previous edition, CIEEM (the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management) has just released revised guidelines for Ecological Impact Assessment (EcIA) and our Technical Director, Carlos Abrahams, reviews them here.

“Ecology is one of the most common issues that needs to be addressed within Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), alongside other disciplines such as water quality, landscape and cultural heritage.

“The new guidelines are intended to promote good practice in assessing  terrestrial, freshwater and coastal environments in the UK and Ireland. This can be in the context of formal EIA, or on smaller-scale projects when a simpler assessment is required to support a straightforward planning application. The new guidance sets out best practice in producing an effective assessment, with input from contributing ecologists and other specialists working in collaboration.

Ecological Impact Assessments are needed for a wide range of developments

Ecological Impact Assessments are needed for a wide range of developments

“An EcIA report (or the ecological chapter of an EIA Environmental Statement) should clearly and simply describe the significant effects of any project so that competent authorities and other interested parties understand the implications of development proposals.

“The new guidance joins other advice from CIEEM, the government and the British Standards Institute in how ecological input should be incorporated into the development and planning process, helping to implement the requirements of legislation such as the EIA Regulations and other aspects of the Town and Country Planning Act.”

Our approach to Ecological Impact Assesment

Baker Consultants have experience of all stages of the EIA and EcIA process, from data collection to assessment of anticipated impacts, and from mitigation and assessment of any residual effects, to non-technical summaries and cumulative assessments. Our in-house team of ecology consultants has a wealth of experience of working in large multidisciplinary teams alongside landscape architects, transport consultants, planners, and archaeologists to produce co-ordinated assessments of schemes.

We are always aware that any of our work may be subject to the detailed scrutiny of a public inquiry and have extensive experience of taking projects through the appeal process or even to the courts. For this reason, we have developed a reputation as a ‘safe pair of hands’ and are often called in to deal with situations where careful negotiations are required or where an experienced expert witness is needed.

Read more about our experience of EIAs and EcIAs here

A review of evidence published in the Journal of Ecology (as recently reported by BBC News,) has concluded that the ash tree is likely to be wiped out in Europe. A fungal disease known as ash-dieback (or Chalara) and the spread of an invasive beetle (the emerald ash borer) are killing off ash trees across Europe; although the beetle has not yet reached UK shores. It is believed that the impact of ash-dieback could mirror that of Dutch elm disease, which largely wiped out elm trees in the 1980s.

UK woodland by Carlos Abrahams, Technical Director

UK woodland by Carlos Abrahams, Technical Director

Ash-dieback

Ash-dieback is caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, which kills the leaves, then the branches, trunk and eventually the whole tree. It is believed to have the potential to destroy 95% of ash trees in the UK. 

Ash dieback was first seen in Eastern Europe in 1992 and now affects more than 2 million square kilometres across Europe. Since being first identified in England in 2012 in a consignment of imported infected trees, it has since spread from Norfolk and Suffolk to South Wales.

The emerald ash borer

The emerald ash borer is a bright green beetle native to Asia. The beetle hasn’t yet reached the UK, but is currently spreading west from Moscow at a rate of 25 miles (41 km) a year. It is thought to have reached Sweden. Although the adult beetles feed on ash trees, they cause little damage. It is their larvae that kill ash trees, by boring under the bark into the wood.

The impact

If ash trees are wiped out in the UK, research from the Journal of Ecology indicates that the UK countryside will be changed forever. Ash is the second most common woodland tree in the UK, second only to the oak, and our towns and cities have 2.2 million ash trees in and around them. Furthermore, loss of ash trees won’t just change our landscape, but will have a severe impact on biodiversity. There are 1,000 species associated with ash or ash woodland, including 12 types of bird, 55 mammals and 239 invertebrates.

Our view

This is a highly complex issue, and we at Baker Consultants keenly follow research developments, such as that in the Journal of Ecology. Harnessing our collective decades of botany experience, our view is that ash will no doubt significantly decline, but that UK extinction is unlikely if the disease follows the usual epidemiology route. This is partly because in Northern Europe many of the ash tree populations are of a very narrow gene pool owing to decimation during the two World Wars and planting of replacements. In the UK, we have a wider gene pool of ash, which increases the likelihood of resistance of certain types of ash to ash-dieback. For this reason, some botanists, including ours, think that UK native ash has a better chance of survival than European strains due to this genetic diversity.  However, many of the imported strains of ash that have been planted in the UK will likely rapidly succumb to ash-dieback. 

Following on from this, one of the big debates in the forestry and conservation communities is what to plant in place of ash? We may have to create more mixed woodlands to give fauna and epiphytic flora (a plant that grows on another plant upon which it depends for mechanical support but not for nutrients e.g. ferns or moss) any chance of survival. Also, non-native sycamore trees are often controlled in woods where ash and sycamore co-exist. Given the potential implications of ash-dieback, should this policy of sycamore control be relaxed?

These are questions we need to consider as individual ecologists and as an industry.

As recently reported by BBC News and BBC Radio 4, Natural England’s consultation on proposed changes to how it implements protected species legislation (especially for great crested newts) ends this week. Great crested newts are a protected species under EU and domestic law due to their overall European conservation status. Under the legislation, great crested newts receive the highest level of protection.

Natural England's consultation concerns great crested newts, like this one pictured. Image by Senior Ecologist, Matt Cook

Natural England’s consultation concerns great crested newts, like this one pictured. Image by Senior Ecologist, Matt Cook

However, many in the industry (including developers, consultants, ecologists and voluntary organisations) have long expressed the view that the current administration of the legislation is not only overly strict and costly to implement, but also does little for the protection of the species. The fundamental problem was the principle of protecting each and every newt, rather than looking to maintain the species at a population level, which is what is actually required by the law.

The consultation

Our Managing Director, Andrew Baker, is an expert in nature conservation law and has been working with the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) to assist Natural England in the run up to this consultation.

The new proposals by Natural England aim to make the current licensing system more flexible and strategic while ensuring that populations of newts are protected.

“This isn’t a change in the law, but rather a change in the way that the law is implemented by Natural England. For some time, I have felt that the legislation hasn’t been interpreted properly: it doesn’t make ecological sense to protect every single newt while ignoring the health of the overall population. This proposed change in how Natural England is implementing the law is very much welcomed and I feel that it much more closely reflects the letter of the law and will also have greater conservation benefit”, says Andrew.

More about great crested newts

The great crested newt (Triturus cristatus) is the largest of Britain’s three indigenous newt species. They are black in colour with an orange and black spotted belly. The main threats to the survival of the great crested newt are habitat destruction and fragmentation as a result of anthropogenic development. Emerging infectious diseases such as chytridiomycosis, caused by a pathogenic fungus, also pose a significant threat to this species.

Great crested newt by Matt Cook

Great crested newt by Matt Cook, Senior Ecologist

Great crested newts and their breeding sites are protected by the EU Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2010 and the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (as amended).

Great crested newts can be surveyed between March and June using standard methods and between 15th April and 30th June using eDNA sampling. Surveys include torchlight surveys, netting, terrestrial search, egg search (on suitable vegetation) and bottle trapping.

Read more about great crested newt surveys here.

A recent academic paper on automated classifiers (‘The use of automated identification of bat echolocation calls in acoustic monitoring: A cautionary note for a sound analysis‘) highlights the importance of a key part of our bat call identification method: manual checking of automated classifiers’ results.

All bats and their roosts are protected from harm and disturbance at all times by EU and UK law, and their foraging habitats also receive some protection within the planning system. Licensed professionals, such as ourselves, carry out a range of bat surveys at sites varying from large housing developments to the removal of individual trees or buildings. These surveys are a legal requirement and integral to planning permission submissions.

Spectrogram showing pipistrelle bat call

Spectrogram showing pipistrelle bat call

A useful tool to support surveys of bats is the use of automated classifiers. These analyse and attempt to recognise bat calls from recordings made by detectors such as SM2+s, and can provide an indication of the likely species. However, as the recent publication by Russo and Voight (2016) demonstrates, “no classifier has yet proven capable of providing correct classifications in 100% of cases or getting close enough to this ideal performance”.

Because of this, at Baker Consultants, our bat experts manually check each call following the use of automated classifiers to ensure accuracy. Automated classifiers remain an extremely useful tool when surveying bats, which are by their nature nocturnal, elusive and often cryptic, but, as this research shows, expert opinion is still needed to validate the results.

Read more about our bat survey capabilities here.