Bat Survey Guidelines: What’s the point?
By Robert Oates
Robert is founder and (in this blog post, the frustrated) managing director of Arbtech, a leading ecological consultancy.
Bear with me, this is a long one
Yesterday afternoon, I took a call from a wildlife trust officer at Surrey Wildlife Trust. The guy wasn’t calling to speak to me, but since I was alone in the office, I tried to help. So after an exchange of pleasantries he explained that he was calling because Surrey Heath council’s planning unit had sent him one of our reports to look at, which related to a planning application from last year, on Old Bisley Road, Camberley, GU16.
This is nothing out of the ordinary.
However, I recall this particular application and site, because of the fiasco that ensued when we submitted our scoping and emergence bat surveys to Surrey Heath in summer 2011.
“Bat survey fiasco”
This particular site was owned and was the home of a nice family: let’s call them the ‘Smiths’. Mr Smith wanted to put a second storey extension on his home and because that involved some works to the roof, so an assessment for bats by a competent professional was requested by the planning officer (rightly so).
Arbtech produced our report of bat scoping survey, which found no bats, but moderate habitat value and a small number of ‘old’ droppings. We believed these droppings to be from brown long eared bats, but because of their age, could not be sure. In consequence, Surrey Heath asked the Smiths for a report of bat emergence survey (again, rightly so).
Surveyors from Arbtech’s ecology team, led by Martin O’Connor BSc (Hons) MIEEM CEnv, performed a dusk emergence and a dawn swarming and re-entry survey. There was no bat activity whatsoever, so our conclusion was that the property was no longer used as a roost, and therefore our recommendation was to provide some bat habitat enhancements at the property, to meet the requirements of PPS9, and leave it at that.
No bats, no problem.. or that’s how it should be anyway
All of the surveys had been performed in strict accordance with the Bat Conservation Trusts’ 2007, ‘good practice guidelines’.
Surrey Heath’s officers however, were not convinced. They asked for a European protected species licence (EPSL) to be obtained and a full mitigation proposal to be designed to accommodate brown long eared bats. This was frustrating. The whole point of performing a survey in accordance with good practice guidelines is that a widely acknowledged, minimum level of scientific rigour has been applied to the process of assessing any risk to bats arising from development.
For those of you who don’t know: obtaining an EPSL would cost the Smiths time – 30 working days of determination period to be precise – and money – our fees alone would be in the region of five to six hundred pounds for preparing an EPSL document and mitigation method statement.
More surveys? Just because Surrey Heath says so?
Between Arbtech and the Smiths we decided to undertake a further emergence and dawn survey, to prove beyond any doubt that the roost was no longer in use. The survey was done, and guess what? No bat activity whatsoever was recorded.
We then took this new information, with now twice the minimum level of survey effort recommended by the Bat Conservation Trust (who let’s be honest, want to see bats protected) to Surrey Heath. Initially they accepted our findings and recommendation – that is, there are no bats so no mitigation is required and certainly there is no need for an EPSL.
Surrey Wildlife Trust weighs in…
The Smiths then get a written consultation response to their application, from Surrey Wildlife Trust (SWT), to say that they will need an EPSL. Furthermore, SWT insisted that we consult Natural England about whether a licence is required, should we have any questions about it. Now, aside from the fact that SWT both, one the one hand, provide planning applications consultation responses for the majority (all?) of the boroughs of Surrey, and yet on the other hand, perform ecological surveys in a commercial capacity (conflict of interest, you decide), they can be very inconsistent in the way they advise councils and consult on applications.
Here’s why. The Smiths went to work on this and found three examples of planning application sites with near-identical situations within a several-mile radius of the Smith’s family home, that had achieved a planning consent within the last year. All three had received a consultation response from SWT. How many of the planning applicants were being told they needed to design and install mitigation under licence? None.
Formal complaint to Surrey Heath council
So, having pointed this out in a formal complaint to Surrey Heath – for which to this day I have never received a response – I decided to take this a step further and contacted Natural England (NE), the licencing authority in England for protected species.
Naturally, it took a while to nail someone at NE down to a detailed response that was site specific, but I did not give up. Eventually, two very helpful ladies; Dr Claire Dowding, Lead Wildlife Management Advisor, and Dr Edel McGurk, Principal Advisor for Regulatory Improvement, provided a response to my satisfaction!
The response from Natural England
Drs Dowding and McGurk confirmed to me, in writing, their responses. Extracts from these responses are re produced below.
In regard to SWT asking for Arbtech/the Smiths to consult NE about the requirement for an EPSL:
- It is for the developer/site owner to decide, based on the advice of a professional ecological consultant, whether a licence is needed, and this decision will be based on the likelihood of offences being committed.
- Natural England cannot take this decision for you.
Well that was interesting! Take that Surrey Heath (and SWT). As professional ecologists, it’s our choice as to whether we advise the Smiths to pursue an EPSL and it’s their choice to follow or ignore that advice. The LA has no authority to mandate on either matter.
And, in regard to all properties requiring a licence if the area hosts a roost/has in the past been a roost:
- Not all works to bat roosts necessarily require a licence apart from the destruction of a definite bat roost, such as for a demolition.
- Obviously the interpretation of [what constitutes] a roost is a separate argument, which we did touch upon.
- All ecological consultants who qualify to hold Natural England mitigation licences must have demonstrated a sound and thorough knowledge of bat ecology including that they have obtained their own personal survey licences. This level of training helps to ensure that consultants are able to understand how different situations and environmental conditions might affect the species of bat and type of roost they are surveying and they must use this knowledge to justify their decisions.
Also interesting. “Not all works to bat roosts require a licence” is a direct contradiction to the advice given to the Smiths by Surrey Heath, presumably on behalf of SWT. Moreover, Drs Dowding and McGurk comment that licenced surveyors have enough experience and professional judgement to make calls like “is this roost no longer in use?” and that LAs need to respect that authority in qualification.
Sorted, right? Wrong..
All this considered, you can imagine my surprise when, getting on for a year later, I am called out of the blue by an officer for SWT, asking if the Smiths are going to apply for an EPSL to discharge their conditions.
Naturally I had a 20-minute rant at the bloke about how “we’ve been through all this” and “no they aren’t, because it’s not a roost.”
He eventually came around to our point of view and kindly informed me that he would recommend to Surrey Heath that the condition is discharged to his satisfaction.
Or is it? I am starting to question the value of e.g. the BCT’s Bat Survey—Good Practice Guidelines, when it seems, every LA has a different view of what the survey season is (May-Sept? Apr-Oct? June-Aug?), what temperature/weather conditions are acceptable, and among other things, how people like the Smiths can prove beyond doubt that their family home is not a roost, without spending unreasonable sums of money on unnecessary surveys/mitigation.
Is it time for a British Standard document to be produced on the subject of bat surveys?
Feel free to give me your thoughts via firstname.lastname@example.org.