Our Technical Director, Carlos Abrahams, was invited to present a talk at the recent Herpetofauna Workers Meeting.  This national conference has been running annually for nearly 30 years, and attracts around 200 delegates. It is the main meeting covering reptile and amphibian ecology and conservation in the UK.

 

The meeting attracts a diverse audience representing: conservation organisations, ecological consultants, statutory bodies, land managers, academic institutions and students, and enthusiastic volunteers.

Carlos was speaking about his recent publication on declining amphibian populations in northern France. This research, with fieldwork carried out between 1974 and 2011, was undertaken with colleagues from the Netherlands to repeatedly track amphibian populations and habitat change over an area of northern France.

The research showed that common adaptable species remained widespread, but that some rarer species, with more exacting habitat requirements, declined significantly. The main reasons for these were pond loss, increasing urbanisation and changes in agricultural practice in the area, with shifts from pasture to arable production.

However, the benefits of practical conservation effort were also demonstrated, as new ponds created in areas of good quality habitat , were quickly colonised by a range of amphibians. This shows that habitat creation/restoration can play a valuable role in conservation, counteracting the adverse effects of land use change and development.

In order to protect its position on issues of air quality that may have the potential to affect the Ashdown Forest SPA/SAC, Wealden District Council has taken the extraordinary step of objecting to residential development in neighbouring authorities and beyond. The objections raised by Wealden District Council include even small residential developments of a few units some 30km away from Ashdown Forest, in authority areas that do not share a border with Wealden District. The objection letters also refer to other European sites where air quality, particularly nitrogen deposition, is unlikely to be detrimental to the interest features of the site.

Heather in bloom on lowland heathland, Rockford Common, Linwood, New Forest National Park, Hampshire, England, UK, sunrise, August 2011

Lowland Heathland, 2011.

While it is clear that air quality is a key issue for some European sites and one that needs to be addressed, it is also true that there are ways in which the effects of additional traffic generated by new residential development can be mitigated, avoiding the need to trigger an Appropriate Assessment under the Habitats Regulations.

Our advice to developers within the region is to ensure that, prior to submission, they prepare a statement to accompany their planning application which sets out: a) whether there are likely to be any effects of air quality arising from the project, and b) if there are, how these effects will be mitigated. For large development this will require a multidisciplinary approach involving ecologists, air quality expertise and traffic consultants.

In a statement, Wealden District Council has referred to their ‘precautionary approach’ which we take as a reference to the precautionary principle and a misinterpretation of that tenet.

 

 

A significant proportion of our work could be described as ‘rescue’ jobs, where a client approaches us to pick up from another ecologist’s work, because for whatever reason they cannot continue with the project. Mostly, it is simply that the previous consultant does not feel comfortable appearing as an expert witness at a public inquiry (it’s not for everyone), or they do not have the specialist knowledge for a particular aspect of the work.

In all cases, a thorough review of the previous ecologists’ work is conducted to ensure that nothing has been missed. The most common failing that we find is in regards to bat surveys. It seems that many ecologists are using now out-dated equipment to capture survey data including heterodyne, time expansion and zero crossing detectors. This creates a series of problems: the data collected is inaccurate as it doesn’t capture accurate GPS readings or misses bat activity; and data processing is more time-consuming, can lead to misidentification of bat species, and therefore will be unrepresentative of the site population. More concerning is when modern equipment is used but then incorrectly analysed. This effectively loses a large proportion of the collected data, fails to follow best practise, and can cause serious implications further in the project.

This is a highly technical issue, of which most clients may be unaware. However, incorrect use of bioacoustics technology can pose a significant risk to a project, especially in obtaining planning permission or as part of a Habitat Regulations Assessment. As industry leaders, Baker Consultants uses the latest full spectrum detectors which capture all signal information and output it in real-time. The data collected is highly detailed, suitable for analysis using automated bat recognition software which is manually validated by experts. In Layman’s terms, large amounts of valuable data can be collected and analysed cost-effectively and accurately. This method undeniably produces better results for the project long-term.

Figures 1 and 2 further highlight the differences between zero crossing and full spectrum data. The two methods processed the same bat data record, however, zero crossing (Figure 1) failed to confidentially identify the Myotis bat species and the social calls from the soprano pipistrelle (Pipistrellus pygmaeus).

 

Figure 1. Bat data analysed in Kaleidoscope (Wildlife Acoustics Inc.) using zero crossing output; soprano pipistrelle identified.

 

Figure 2. Bat data analysed in Kaleidoscope (Wildlife Acoustics Inc.) using full spectrum output; soprano pipistrelle with social calls and Myotis species identified.

 

So how do you ensure that your ecologist is using the correct technical equipment to protect the outcome of your project? Simple, just ask! Specify full spectrum recording in the work brief both at the recording and analysis stage. The use of time expansion, heterodyne or zero crossing devices on your project should not be accepted. Technology has moved on, and you need to ensure that your ecologist has moved on with it.