It is critical that rail engineers keep up-to-date with the legal and policy issues affecting wildlife if they are to avoid expensive delays and other unforeseen costs on rail construction projects. John Newton, managing director of The Ecology Consultancy outlines some of the things that you need to know.

Why does wildlife matter?

Why should you, as a rail engineer or a project manager on a rail infrastructure project, be concerned about wildlife? Whilst we tend to appreciate things more if they provide us with tangible products, for example bees making honey, maintaining a healthy ecosystem in which we all live and work requires a different perspective. More prosaically, if species and habitats are protected by law and policy then it is essential that these are taken into account early in project planning.

One way to ensure that this happens is to undertake surveys as an integral part of any project. Failure to identify such species or habitats may cause costly delays to your upgrade or maintenance project, but, worse, you could end up with a heavy fine or even a prison sentence. Not only can taking the time to get it right save you money, it can also help create and maintain an interesting and healthy environment in which to work and live.

Railways are important for wildlife

Bats, badgers, great crested newts, reptiles, nesting birds and even dormice are frequently found in and around the existing rail infrastructure and land designated for rail development. Habitats can include woodland, heathland and chalk grassland. Railway maintenance and construction projects can have an impact on these species and habitats in a number of ways including:

  • Direct loss – disturbing or destroying habitats and the species that live there;
  • Fragmentation – such that species become isolated and potentially suffer local extinction;
  • Disturbance – for example by noise and light;
  • Accidental introduction or spread of foreign or invasive species such as Japanese Knotweed.

Surveys and accompanying impact assessments can not only help identify what may be affected by any proposals but how any impacts can

Photo: The Ecology Consultancy.

Photo: The Ecology Consultancy. be mitigated. In some cases projects can provide enhancements for wildlife, but to be most effective these again need to be based on accurate survey data.

Wildlife law and you

The main acts to be aware of are the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 (amended) and The Conservation of Habitats & Species Regulation 2010. The latter is important as it places greater responsibility on land owners with regard to European Protected Species.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 is the main piece of legislation protecting wildlife in the UK. Generally, it protects the nation’s most important habitats, such as Epping Forest, by designating them as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). It also protects individual species. For example, all wild birds are given protection especially during the breeding season, and other species (wild animals and some plants) are given different degrees of protection depending on their conservation status.

Important pieces of EC law are The Wild Birds Directive, which focuses on the protection of the habitats of endangered as well as migratory species, and The Habitats Directive, which protects a variety of native animals including bats, dormice, great crested newts, and otters. Both of these directives are implemented by The Conservation Habitats & Species Regulations 2010.

The cost of getting it wrong

Breaching any of this legislation is a criminal offence and getting it wrong can be costly in many ways. A successful prosecution for a wildlife offence can lead to a £5,000 fine or a six-month prison sentence per offence. For example, the destruction of a barn owl’s nest containing three eggs could result in two years in prison – six months for the destruction of the nest plus six months per egg! The cost of destroying a bat roost hosting thousands of bats doesn’t bear thinking about at £5,000 per bat!

Know your ecological surveys

The best way to ensure that you get it right first time is to enlist the help of the professionals. Specialist ecologists will provide timely advice and conduct a range of ecological surveys including Phase 1 habitat surveys, protected species surveys, and invasive species surveys. There are different stages in this process:

Screening is mainly a desk study used to collate existing information on a site to flag up possible ecological constraints or opportunities and to identify what may be needed by way of further surveying. Screening is not season-dependent and looks for:

  • designated areas
  • areas of semi natural habitat
  • habitats included in a Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP)
  • records for: European protected species, Biodiversity Action Plan species, Red Data Book (RDB) species, Birds of Conservation Concern (BCC).

A scoping survey includes the desk study as above, but also includesa short site visit, possibly at pre-acquisition phase to identify any possible ecological constraints to development and any opportunities for ecological improvement. It is important at this stage to identify the next steps to take in terms of survey. A scoping survey can be carried out any time of the year and looks for, amongst other things, semi-natural habitats and protected and notable species.

Phase 1 Habitat Surveys identify the habitats that comprise a site and the key plant species for each of those habitat types. They provide ‘target-notes’ on important aspects of the site, such as the presence of a rare plant or a protected species of animal, or a special habitat feature such as an ancient hedgerow.

Photo: Amy Lewis.

Photo: Amy Lewis.

This type of survey can be carried out any time of the year, but is best done in spring and summer when the characteristic vegetation types are more readily identifiable.

Phase 2 surveys provide detailed studies of important animal and plant groups. They may require specialist input and may have to be conducted at the right time of year, over a number of specific days, at the right time of day and in appropriate weather.

The surveyor undertaking these surveys should be a professional, experienced ecologist and may have to be in possession of a special licence from Natural England in order to disturb and handle protected species.

To avoid delays in lineside management or construction projects, the rail engineer or project manager should make sure that there is sufficient time for a professional ecologist to conduct the relevant surveys properly. In addition, these need to be commissioned well in advance of any works or planning submission.

Booking your survey

The dormouse survey season runs from April until November, bat roost and activity surveys are undertaken between May and October, whilst hibernation surveys take place from December to February. Badger setts can be surveyed all year round, though badger activity surveys take place in spring and autumn, when the animals are moving about. Reptiles are surveyed from March to the end of September and great crested newts are trapped and counted from mid March to mid June (though the suitability of ponds to support great crested newts can be assessed year-round). The Breeding Bird survey period runs from March to June, but regard must be given to birds still nesting into August.