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Ecological surveys

Development advice

Several ecological surveys could be run to gain more information about a development site’s ecology. Below is some generic advice on what we expect to accompany applications.

We expect all survey/assessment work is done and prepared by competent persons with suitable qualifications, licenses and experience.

Survey work must be:

  • at an appropriate time and month of year for that species
  • in suitable weather conditions
  • using nationally recognised survey guidelines/methods where available
  • done to best practice standards

For guidance visit ‘sources for survey methods’.

Also reports should include detailed information on impact assessment, and include any necessary measures for avoidance, mitigation, compensation and enhancement.

All submitted reports must provide sufficient information for the local planning authority to fully consider a proposed development’s impact.

Reports must address two requirements:

  1. Assessment of the site through ecological surveying.
  2. Assessment of ecological impacts.

Submitted reports demonstrating thorough survey work and assessment must:

  • identify all designated sites, priority and protected species and habitats that the proposals could affect, and provide details of potential impacts and proposed mitigation measures
  • summarise of the proposed development
  • describe the site including existing wildlife features, and site history like ownership, general usage, planning history, the type of and need for the proposed development
  • include a data search from the South East Wales Biological Records Centre (SEWBReC) and/or any other relevant organisations
  • inform us about of the extent, scope, and methodology of the surveying being done
  • be undertaken and prepared by competent persons with suitable qualifications, licenses and experience, and information about this should be in the report
  • be carried out at an appropriate time and month, in suitable weather conditions and using nationally recognised survey guidelines/methods where available while using best practice
  • record species and/or habitats present both onsite and within an appropriate buffer zone around the site, while identifying their numbers/extent and location
  • map species distribution and how the area, site, structure or feature is used such as for feeding, shelter, breeding
  • map the habitat types present onsite and/or in surrounding areas for showing on an appropriate scale plan, and record the species’ extent, area or length
  • indicate habitat and wildlife features in the above maps, and any appropriate target notes, on and offsite, while including photographs is recommended
  • briefly record species and habitats incidentally encountered as part of the survey as appropriate such as evidence of nesting birds in a bat survey
  • detail any limiting factors or constraints that may have affected survey work
  • assess site status against Wildlife Sites/Site of Importance for Nature Conservation criteria
  • identify ecological networks
  • identify and describe development impacts likely to harm the species, features used and habitats which should take account of:
    • direct and indirect effects
    • short-term and long-term impacts
    • direct and indirect impacts
    • scale and nature of impacts set within a local/national context
    • impacts during construction and operation

‘Consideration of Protected Species within Developments Appendix 2’ gives an overview of the considerations that should be addressed in relation to protected species. All data submitted to the local planning authority as part of the application will be made available to SEWBReC, unless the applicant requests otherwise. For guidance, visit sources for survey methods.

Avoidance measures built into development proposals may remove the need for detailed survey work. We will seek expert advice from Natural Resources Wales (NRW) in determining cases when this may be applicable.

Avoidance measures are those measures that can reasonably be implemented to avoid an offence occurring. Consequently, these Reasonable Avoidance Measures (RAMs) can often avoid the requirement for a licence. RAMs are the preferred approach when considering a scheme’s design. RAMs may include:

  • revising the site layout to avoid loss of an important feature
  • carrying out works at a time which is less likely to result in disturbance
  • amending working methods to reduce impacts to an acceptable level

If RAMs are practical in a scheme, these must still be detailed in a Method Statement which is submitted to us for approval. Implementation of the measures outlined in the RAMs Method Statement will likely be a condition of the resulting planning consent.

If the RAMs avoid all anticipated impacts on protected species and their habitats to acceptable levels, an NRW licence is unlikely to be needed. This can often avoid or reduce delays to starting development and will often reduce costs as well. Therefore It is important to create channels between your architects whether they are landscape or otherwise and your suitably qualified ecologist during master planning. This will aid in guiding the design and programme at an early enough stage to identify whether RAMs may be a suitable approach.

Guidance note three:

Developers/applicants must provide sufficient evidence to demonstrate that avoidance is impossible before mitigation.

Guidance note four:

Where harm is unavoidable, mitigation measures should minimise it.

Depending on the scale of development and predicted impacts, it may be impossible to rely on RAMs alone to fully address all potential impacts. Early communication across the design team will promote greater understanding of all the constraints whether ecological or otherwise, and allow a balanced approach to design.

Where RAMs cannot satisfactorily safeguard protected species, mitigation measures will be required to ensure no harm and that no net loss of their habitat results. The exact measures needed will depend on the population size, distribution and proximity to works, and the works’ scale, timing and duration.

The method statement will detail mitigation measures to be implemented which will be licensed activities. Therefore, they must be carried out in strict accordance with the method statement.

When considering mitigation measures, the following points must be taken into account:

  • unproven mitigation methods will be unacceptable
  • all relevant professionals must be involved in developing mitigation as when engineers work with tree specialists to design hard landscape elements reducing impacts on trees while meeting other performance requirements
  • measures designed to mitigate one impact may cause others as when inappropriate, extensive tree belts for screening adversely affects the character of open land
  • planting intended as screening may take a considerable time to take effect and realistic growth rates must be considered
  • controlling construction activities to ensure feasibility

Specific requirements for mitigation for species and habitats are outlined within the species specific guidance sheets and in nationally recognised survey guidelines/methods.

Considering proposed mitigation measures, we will assess residual impacts’ significance against relevant planning policies. At key stages as the proposals are prepared, we strongly advise applicants to do the same to avoid wasting resources preparing unacceptable proposals.

If zones of influence have designated sites of international importance (Special Area of Conservation), a separate assessment under the Habitat Regulations 1994 may be needed.

If all avenues for mitigation of the development site’s landscape and biodiversity resources have been exhausted, compensation measures should be considered.

Guidance note five:

Compensation will only be considered where the developer/applicant has satisfactorily shown avoidance and mitigation are impossible and the compensatory measures cause no net habitat loss.

General considerations for compensation

Where mitigation cannot satisfactorily reduce all potential impacts to satisfactory levels, additional compensation measures will likely be required. Compensation measures will be requirements of the licence. All compensation measures outlined in the licence must be adhered to and failure to do so is illegal.

Usually, compensation measures are due to habitat loss. If the proposed development cannot avoid habitat loss, a compensatory habitat should be created before the loss, in accordance with the licence requirements. The species’ population size and natural range must also be maintained. Consequently, it is important to consider the connectivity between the wider area’s retained habitats, new habitats and existing habitats.

Habitat compensation must be provided in advance of site clearance works. This will enable the transfer of protected species to the compensation area/s before development disturbs them.

A number of compensation options are available for the loss of habitats:

  • on-site re-creation of habitats of equal or greater quantity to those lost
  • enhancement of poor quality habitat on-site such as species-poor amenity grassland into species-rich grassland
  • off-site creation and/or enhancement of habitats, which is best undertaken in consultation with us, the NRW, and local wildlife trusts
  • financial contribution towards the creation, enhancement and/or management of off-site habitats

Occasionally a well-thought-out scheme can actually increase a site’s biodiversity and landscape quality levels above that which existed before development.

When recreating habitats on-site, it is important to understand the local context in which those habitats are being created. Some habitats are more appropriate to an area than others. Similarly creating the right habitat can improve the ecological network’s overall connectivity, and vastly increase the wildlife benefit. Ask us for advice. Guidance on incorporating wildlife habitats into developments through green infrastructure is in Section 1 of ‘The Green Infrastructure Approach’.

Some compensation measures are simple and can be achieved at little extra cost. Using native berry bearing bushes for landscaping schemes and gardens in developments is a good example. In the case of some urban sites, they can often improve on what was there originally.

Large habitat losses will naturally require equally large compensation measures such as new woodland/scrub planting or the creation of new ponds. Expected large losses and subsequent compensation measures should be considered at the very outset of the project and planning process. This will enable input from a number of sources about the most suitable and effective compensatory measures. It may also identify off-site locations where biodiversity off-setting can be used as a compensation tool. Ideally this would be somewhere near the greatest benefit.

Often habitat creation is driven by habitat loss. However in some circumstances greater benefit can be gained by creating rarer or more specialist local habitats where the opportunity arises.

Whilst we are committed to protecting and enhancing the county borough’s biodiversity and landscape resources, there are likely to be occasions where loss is unavoidable. To avoid incremental loss across the county borough, even small amounts of habitat should be replaced. This could be done onsite where the design allows under a green infrastructure approach, or off-site under biodiversity off-setting in agreement with a landowner.

Replacing habitats off site should always be a last resort and as much natural value as possible should remain onsite. This is not only for wildlife but also for people living onsite or nearby. Green infrastructure provides numerous benefits and its removal from an area could result in a loss of benefit and function for the local community.

However, we understand that in some cases the overriding need for development will conflict with our biodiversity goals. Also we know it isn’t always practical to completely replace habitats and green infrastructure within the development envelope. To address this, any loss must be replaced off-site.

Replacing habitats off-site should always be a last resort and as much natural value as possible should remain on-site.

All biodiversity off-setting should be undertaken in consultation with us, NRW, and the Wildlife Trusts of South and West Wales.

There are a number of ways in which this can be achieved such as:

  • biodiversity off-setting in arrangement with a landowner including creation/enhancement/restoration offsite
  • contribution towards habitat creation/enhancement undertaken by other parties, like the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales

Any biodiversity offsetting should be undertaken in consultation with us and external partners like the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales, and NRW.

There are a number of ways in which this can be achieved such as:

  • biodiversity off setting like creation/enhancement/restoration offsite in arrangement with a landowner
  • contribution towards habitat creation/enhancement undertaken by other parties, such as the Wildlife Trust of South and West Wales

Offsetting will produce the greatest benefit when habitat creation, restoration and/or enhancement is done in close association with existing habitats. The larger the area of habitat and its connectivity to other habitats the better for wildlife.

Guidance note six:

Offsets must only be used to compensate for genuinely unavoidable damage.

“The offsetting framework must not encourage a culture of wildlife being 'disposable, tradable and replaceable'. Biodiversity offsetting should be a last resort, after all attempts to avoid and reduce possible impacts have been taken.”

National Trust, 2013.

Mitigation and compensation strategy for protected and priority species/habitats.

To avoid any additional impacts that are identified, first consider changing the design. Only when the avoidance of landscape and biodiversity elements has been exhausted should you consider ways of mitigating the remaining impacts. The local authority will need submitted reports that show why negative impact avoidance is unfeasible before providing a strategy with mitigation and compensation proposals.

Development plans must provide:

  • a strategy to ensure there is no overall adverse effect on the maintenance of habitats and species affected
  • a statement to inform our assessment against the ‘three tests’ on sites where European protected species or habitats will likely be affected
  • details of any translocation proposals, including methodology and full assessment and description of proposed receptor site
  • details of habitat/feature creation, restoration and/or enhancement
  • details of any resultant change in the status of priority habitats/species expressed in terms appropriate to the local biodiversity action plan
  • a work schedule preferably to include maps and a diagram showing works’ phasing/timing
  • details of post-development management and monitoring either in the report or, preferably, as a standalone management plan

Guidance note seven:

All proposed actions and monitoring must be recorded onto the UK Biodiversity Action Reporting System (BARS).

The license application process

NRW has a standard method of application for development licences. Briefly, a licence application requires the developer or landowner undertaking the proposed works to appoint a suitably qualified and experienced ecologist. They should be named on the licence application.

The appointed ecologist will most likely be responsible for coordinating the licence application, which requires the completion of an application form and a method statement. The method statement must be to the approved Natural Resources Wales format which is provided with the licence application information. It will present much the same information as that which we need to inform the planning application.

Once NRW receive an application, it will normally take up to 30 days for a determination.

Rules for using the license

The licence granted will have conditions attached and will only be valid with the approved method statement. The licence permits only activities the Method Statement identifies, so it is important developers and landowners carefully review it before submission to Welsh Government.

The activities and measures detailed in a licence are there to avoid unnecessary harm to the protected species. Failure to follow the licence’s exact measures can lead to prosecution. Any activity that deviates significantly from the licensed method statement would be considered a breach of the licence. This includes works in different locations, using different methods or at a different time than the method statement identifies.

Any committed works identified in the method statement which are not implemented as the licensed method statement specifies might also be considered a breach of the licence. This may include inspecting and maintaining exclusion fencing, or carrying out monitoring and management works or mitigation measures being supervised onsite by the ecologist.

Breaching the licence is a criminal offence. By current laws, anyone authorised to carry out activities under the licence may be held responsible for breaching the licence’s terms and conditions.

Thus all staff and contractors on the site should be fully briefed about the licence and its implications for working there, before starting onsite. Keep onsite at all times:

  • an updated copy of the licence and associated method statement
  • any identification sheets that may be helpful to site workers
  • contact details for the appointed ecologist

The license’s expiry

Licences have an expiry date. If works need to continue beyond the expiry date, you must apply for an extension. An extension cannot be issued for an expired licence. Once a licence has expired, you must apply for a new licence. Depending on the time since expiration, this may need additional surveys to ensure accurate, updated information supports the application.

One of the simplest ways to add biodiversity to a development is to enhance what is already onsite. This could be in the form of a new pond, tree planting, repairing a hedgerow or changing the management of the site’s grassland. On larger developments, creating dedicated wildlife areas of grassland, woodland, scrub or even water bodies is sometimes possible.

Large development sites can enhance surrounding habitats and connecting corridors for plants and animals. Also they provide natural interest for residents.

A licence is needed if protected species are found there or nearby, and where proposals would otherwise adversely affect the species or their habitats. NRW will often assist the decision making process to identify whether a licence is necessary.

The developer or their chosen ecologist’s method statement which notes the mitigation and compensatory methods must be supplied for a planning application and with the licence application. Failing to give all the required information for a planning application or a licence application may result in delays.

A licence is issued for a specific species only. If other protected/licensable species are found during development, the appropriate licence must be applied for.

The method statement is legally binding once licensed and breaching its methods is a criminal offence.

The developer/landowner making the proposals is responsible for implementing the method statement and the upkeep of protection/mitigation measures.

The developer/landowner occupying the site is responsible for informing contractors working there or nearby about the requirements of the method statement and protected areas.

Anyone authorised to work under the licence may be held responsible for breaches of it.

Any changes to the mitigation, including those on an emergency basis must be discussed with NRW and the ecologist responsible. Amendments to the licence will be needed for significant deviations to the proposed works.

The below are exceptions for when a full species survey and assessment may not be needed:

  1. Following a pre-application consultation by the applicant, the local planning authority has stated in writing that no protected species surveys and assessments are needed.
  2. If protected species clearly aren’t present despite guidance indicating they are likely, applicants should give evidence with the planning application to show their absence. For example, this might be in a letter or brief report from a suitably qualified, experienced person, or relevant local nature conservation organisation.
  3. If the development proposal clearly won’t affect any protected species present, only limited information needs to be given. However this information should:
    • demonstrate that there will be no significant effect on any protected species present
    • include a statement acknowledging the applicant knows it is illegal to disturb or harm protected species should they later be found or disturbed
  4. Sometimes, it may be appropriate for applicants to provide a protected species survey and report for only one or some species likely affected by particular activities. Applicants should make clear which species the report includes or not, as exceptions apply.

Image licence: 'Flight of pigeons' by craigCloutier. Licence credit.

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