The numbers of breeding bird species in the UK vary year on year, but well over 200 species are known to regularly breed here. Bird species known to regularly occur in the UK are periodically assessed through a collaboration of the UK’s leading governmental and non-governmental conservation organisations. The most recent 2015 review used a range of criteria to place a total of 244 regularly occurring UK species onto one of three lists:

  • 27.5% of species were listed as Red (those with the most rapidly declining populations). This is up from the 21% listed in the previous review in 2009.
  • 39.3% were listed as Amber (populations declining at a slower rate). This is down from 51% in 2009.
  • 33.2% were listed as Green (populations stable or increasing). This is up from 28% in 2009.

A total of 67 species are now on the Red list, up considerably from the 40 species that were on the list in 2002.

A similar collaboration of the UK’s conservation organisations reported in 2012 that there had been an estimated 44 million reduction in the number of breeding birds in the UK since 1966. These figures highlight the problems many bird species face in a rapidly changing environment and emphasises the need for accurate and effective surveys to assess and eventually inform advice to offset or avoid any potential adverse effects that vulnerable bird species may suffer as a result of a development. This is not only important for the UK but can be of international importance, particularly as the UK holds internationally significant numbers of many species of birds.

Protection for breeding birds

All UK nesting birds are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (as amended) 1981, which makes it an offence to intentionally kill, injure or take any wild bird or take, damage or destroy its nest whilst in use or being built, or take or destroy its eggs.

Section 41 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities (NERC) Act 2006 places a duty on every public authority to have regard to conserving biodiversity and requires that the Secretary of State must publish a list of the living organisms and types of habitats which are of principal importance for the purpose of biodiversity. The Secretary of State must take steps to further the conservation of those living organisms in any list published under this section. A number of bird species are listed as Species of Principal Importance (SPI) and therefore protected under the provisions of the Act. Species of Principal Importance are a material consideration for a Local Planning Authority in the exercise of its duties. There are 49 bird Species of Principal Importance in England and 51 in Wales (listed under Section 42 of the NERC Act). A similar number of bird species are protected under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004 and the Wildlife and Natural Environment Act (Northern Ireland) 2011.

When do I need a breeding bird survey?

Where habitats that could support breeding birds will be affected by a development, a breeding bird survey will be necessary. These habitats could be features such as woodland, hedgerows, barns/buildings, ponds or grassland.

What is a breeding bird survey?

Surveys for breeding birds normally involve an experienced ecologist visiting the site at least three times between April and June. A transect is walked around the site which includes all the habitats previously identified and the area which is to be developed. Bird species and their behaviour are mapped and an assessment is made of the significance of the species present and an estimate of the number of breeding territories.

This information can be used to design mitigation to avoid or reduce adverse impacts on breeding birds and to compensate for any loss of habitat.

Why Baker Consultants?

Baker Consultants have a number of ecologists that have years of experience and knowledge in conducting breeding bird surveys, as well as whole range of other types of bird survey. For general information on our bird survey expertise, visit our bird surveys page where you can listen to Carlos Abrahams, our Technical Director, discussing a typical bird survey, or read our pages on wetland bird surveys and winter bird surveys.

Each year, the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) presents a series of awards to celebrate achievements of both the profession and of individual practitioners working within the ecological and environmental management sector.

The Innovation Award sets out to recognise a successful organisation demonstrating a novel approach to professional practice in any aspect of ecology and environmental management. The award also recognises those who are delivering sustainable benefits for society. Our nomination relates to the research and development of bioacoustics survey skills for the monitoring of western capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus) and European nightjar (Caprimulgus europaeus).

The Project:

The species the project focused on, western capercaillie and European nightjar, are cryptic species of conservation concern, sensitive to anthropogenic disturbance. The project demonstrated that bird bioacoustics results in increased species detection and financial savings related to reduced survey time, whilst providing a more quantitative assessment of the numbers of breeding nightjar pairs. The applications extend further, providing a minimally intrusive means of measuring nightjar breeding pair numbers at site level, or as part of a national census. This is particularly crucial for nightjars as conventional survey methods may be under-recording this species, conversely, the use of ‘churring’ can lead to over-estimated numbers of breeding pairs. Taken together, this results in serious implications for the conservation of nightjars, which are declining in both numbers and range.

Nightjar spectrogram (frequency plotted against time) showing a series of major (high frequency) phrases and minor (low frequency) phrases

The second stage of the project focusing on capercaillie lek activity was also hugely successful, readily recognising vocalisations using unsupervised software verified by manual analysis, despite challenges due to other bird species and environmental noise. Scottish capercaillie populations are at a critically low level, with the reasons for their decline being complex and not fully understood. This research has the capability of dramatically improving the quality and cost-effectiveness of conventional lek surveys. Previously unmonitored areas can now be feasibly surveyed, and high-quality long-term data can be interrogated for seasonal trends. Results also importantly indicated that traditional lek surveys can in fact cause disturbance to the birds at the lek. Baker Consultants aim to continue using bioacoustics to further aid the spatial and temporal monitoring of capercaillie to benefit conservation management efforts.

Capercaille lek showing the two key phrases

Baker Consultants intention for the work is to prove the applicability of bioacoustic methods and increase adoption by conservation bodies and ecological consultancies, which have not yet taken on the practical applications of this valuable tool. This work has been done entirely on a pro-bono basis, principally with Nottinghamshire Wildlife Trust, RSPB, Forestry Commission and Scottish Natural Heritage.  Presently, two peer-reviewed papers have been published and made freely available, with more currently in production. Additionally, the UK’s first workshop on bird bioacoustics has been successfully organised, with over 40 participants contributing to the development of a draft bioacoustics survey protocol.  This is to be submitted for publication to CIEEMs In Practice soon, to widen awareness of the method, and gain additional feedback from the wider community.

 

Update:16/05/2018

On April 13th the Court of Justice of the European Union published its ruling in the Case C323/17 with regards to the Habitats Directive. Since the ruling, the industry has been trying to get to grips with what is one of the most unhelpful and contradictory rulings that I have had to deal with in 15 years of working on the Habitats Directive.

It has been standard working practice for plans or projects that may affect European nature conservation sites such as Thames Basin Heaths to include incorporated mitigation measures from the initial stages of the Habitat Regulations Assessment (HRA) process. In many cases this screening stage (or Likely Significant Effects) negates the need for projects to proceed onto a full appropriate assessment. Projects such as housing ensure strategic mitigation measures are incorporated into the planning proposals to prevent likely significant effects upon these high value sites. This approach is also consistent with the Environmental Impact Directive, previous HRA case law (Waddenzee) and domestic case law (Hart).

However, the People Over Wind case has ruled that mitigation cannot be taken into account when considering the screening test for Likely Significant Effects. Therefore, many developments cannot now be screened out of requiring a full appropriate assessment, which requires more time and involves more consultation than would previously be spent on a ‘screening request’. Furthermore, it throws into question the legality of many strategic mitigation systems that have been put in place to protect sites such as the Dorset Heaths and Thames Basin Heaths.

This ruling has major implications for developments where a Habitats Regulations Assessment may be required. In order to comply with this ruling and avoid legal challenge we are advising that any current applications be reviewed to ensure that the HRA process has been followed and is compliant with this judgement.

 The People Over Wind case involved mitigation measures to prevent sediment affecting freshwater pearl mussels due to installation of a wind turbine connection cable.

Case Details:

The conclusion of the ruling is: “Article 6(3) of Council Directive 92/43/EEC of 21 May 1992 on the conservation of natural habitats and of wild fauna and flora must be interpreted as meaning that, in order to determine whether it is necessary to carry out, subsequently, an appropriate assessment of the implications, for a site concerned, of a plan or project, it is not appropriate, at the screening stage, to take account of the measures intended to avoid or reduce the harmful effects [mitigation] of the plan or project on that site” [my emphasis].

For those involved in the HRA process this a significant shift in emphasis, which will result in many more projects failing the first of the HRA legal tests of whether the plan or project will give rise to Likely Significant Effects. Previously, domestic case law has allowed mitigation measures to be taken into account at the ‘screening test’, avoiding the need to progress onto a full appropriate assessment. However, this ruling means that this approach is now no longer valid.

This issue had been addressed in the English courts in 2008 in the Hart District Council case where it was ruled that “As a matter of common sense, anything which encourages the proponents of plans and projects to incorporate mitigation measures at the earliest possible stage in the evolution of their plan or project is surely to be encouraged.

I am satisfied that there is no legal requirement that a screening assessment under Regulation 48(1) [now Regulation 63 (1)] must be carried out in the absence of any mitigation measures that form part of a plan or project. On the contrary, the competent authority is required to consider whether the project, as a whole, including such measures, if they are part of the project, is likely to have a significant effect on the SPA If the competent authority does not agree with the proponent’s view as to the likely efficacy of the proposed mitigation measures, or is left in some doubt as to their efficacy, then it will require an appropriate assessment because it will not have been able to exclude the risk of a significant effect on the basis of objective information.”

Previously some practitioners have made the distinction between mitigation measures that are additional to the project (not taken into account at the screening stage), and mitigation measures that are ‘incorporated mitigation measures’ (integral part of the plan or project and should be taken into account). The new judgement does not address this distinction, however the proposed mitigation in the case in question (involving potential impact of sediment pollution from installation of a wind turbine connection cable on freshwater pearl mussels) was to be agreed with the planning authority post-consent and detailed in a ‘Construction Management Plan’. It is therefore questionable whether the mitigation was an integral part of the project as envisaged by the Hart judgement. The logic behind the ruling is that a more detailed examination of the effectiveness of mitigation measures is needed, and by considering mitigation at the screening stage a higher level of scrutiny may otherwise by circumvented under an appropriate assessment. However the lack of detail within the ruling means that the overall conclusion is somewhat blunt and does not take into account how well thought out the mitigation measures may be, or whether they are tried and tested techniques where the efficacy can be considered certain to prevent harm to the site.

My view is that the ruling is entirely misjudged and I very much hope that Member States use this opportunity to seek clarification on this ruling. In the Hart Case it was said that “…the provisions in the Habitats Directive are intended to be an aid to effective environmental decision making, not a legal obstacle course”. This unfortunate decision has created many more hurdles within the already complex and lengthy Habitat Regulations Assessment process.

From supervising the licensed removal of roofing material at a bat roost, to overseeing tree removal or the creation of ponds, an Ecological Clerk of Works (ECOW) role is varied. ECoWs play an important role on construction sites, fully briefing clients to avoid conflict with legislation or planning consents, whilst protecting biodiversity features during site clearance and development activities.

An ECoW is assisted by guidance and recommendations, as set out under British Standard BS42020:2013, standing advice from Government bodies, and site-specific planning conditions or Construction Environmental Management Plans. A good ECoW will have a full knowledge of the ongoing development requirements, local and site biodiversity and the client’s legal obligations. A toolbox talk is always given to outline the environmental and sustainability issues, as well as health and safety matters, pertinent to the activity about to be undertaken, and the ECoW is present on site, or easily contactable, when sensitive works are to take place.

Baker Consultants assists our clients throughout the planning process, from the initial identification of constraints and gathering of pre-application baseline ecological data, to the implementation of mitigation/enhancement measures and monitoring. Many projects have required an ECoW on site during the construction phase. The benefits our clients receive are experienced staff with sound site-specific ecological knowledge and the support of a company network of in-house specialists to ensure that legal and planning obligations are followed throughout the construction process .

Principal Ecologist Mark Woods overseeing pond creation.