Author: David Smith - Eastern Region Director at Ecological Planning & Research
Is wildlife and the natural world an escape from your routine? Is it part of your everyday? Is it a means by which you connect with the landscape around you? Perhaps a way to connect with people too?
For me, it’s all the above, and I don’t see that being in contradiction with my day job as an Ecological Consultant. If asked, however, I would call myself a birder, applied ecologist and wildlife conservationist. Again, not a contradiction in my view.
It’s from all these perspectives I have outlined my personal views on development in the farmed landscape and its effects on wildlife. In doing so, I realise I have not mentioned other issues that will matter dearly to people, such as the loss of Grade 1 agricultural land or the visual character of the places people work and live in. These are beyond my expertise.
I’ll start in the middle of my own story, a period when I was completing research into the benefits of agri-environment grass fields and margins for Orthoptera (grasshoppers and bush-crickets) and farmland birds.
As large-bodied invertebrates, Orthoptera are an important food item for the chicks of several farmland bird species. Throughout my reading, I learnt about the decline in farmland birds along with our native moths and other wildlife. While the reasons for these declines were listed in multiple academic papers, I do not recall a single one listing development as the cause. Nor did they point the finger at farmers. It was clear that the key driver was the intensification of our farmed landscape through rapid technological change coupled with government policy and incentives by other decision-makers.
Having worked on several development sites situated on agricultural land since I finished my PhD, I’ve witnessed how intensive modern farming practice effectively hollows out wildlife from most of the productive areas. I’ve seen the farmed periphery - the field edges, the hedgerows, and the pocket woodland - becoming reservoirs of any remaining ecological interest.
On a larger spatial scale, I’ve seen the loss of breeding grey partridge and corn bunting across almost all of my childhood county, Surrey. British yellowhammers, perhaps the modern-day canary of a ‘healthy farmland,’ are declining in number, and it’s a species I worry about. Likewise, as my interest in UK native bees developed, I’ve read similar stories about their plight.
I now live in East Kent and feel blessed to have grey partridge, corn bunting and yellowhammer within walking distance of my house, which was built in around 2003. I moved there because I could not afford a house (or flat) 40 miles away in West Kent, where I had been renting. East Kent, in places such as Thanet, is also an area where significant development is coming forwards. I am confronted with a concern for my own ‘patch’, whilst understanding the personal challenge of being able to afford a house. I’ve listened to local people outside of my professional role, and I share many of their concerns.
To my way of thinking, and putting ecology matters at the forefront of this blog’s consideration, it will often be better to build new houses on intensive agricultural land, a habitat that some describe as an ecological desert. I would rather this than development on a biodiverse brownfield site. Forward-thinking developers have an opportunity to create high quality spaces from barren fields, where people can live and connect with nature. Consider walking out the door into a flower-rich space where bees and butterflies excite and enthrall young generations.
Imagine children, like my younger self, trying to catch grasshoppers by hand on a hot summer’s day in long grassland. Or sitting in your back garden with friends and family, watching swifts screaming overhead because they are nesting in specially provided nest bricks. Contemplate a group of chattering sparrows and birdsong as you wake in the morning – a consequence of high-quality green spaces mixed with patches of scruffy scrub, providing breathing space where once only intensive cropland existed. Development, if done sensitively and in an evidence-based way, can provide another pathway to deliver conservation benefits.
Some of you - quite fairly - might be asking: what about the farmland birds? What about skylark? What about yellowhammer? What about those birds you care about on your own doorstep? This is an area where I think my profession needs to do better.
Firstly, to explain the complex ecological balance of the requirements of different flora and fauna. In all wildlife conservation - whether that be the activities of a wildlife conservation charity, public body, private individual or organisation - there is a complex balance of potentially competing needs of different species.
Carefully considered development on intensive farmland has the potential to benefit red status birds like swift, house sparrow and starling, as well as an array of other more widespread species – from bees to bats*. However, even with an overall gain in biodiversity, without appropriate mitigation, there can still be losses of farmland specialists such as the skylark.
(Photo by Bob Brewer on Unsplash)
Secondly, even though development is not a driving reason behind the historic farmland bird decline, in some areas there are farmland bird assemblages that are becoming increasingly important, as those in other areas have sadly been lost. As such they are worthy of greater consideration by ecological consultants.
However, not all intensive farmland is the same. An area that only supports breeding skylark, for example, is ecologically less important than an area that supports breeding grey partridge, corn bunting, yellowhammer, and breeding skylark. My own view is that the ecological consultancy profession needs to ensure we evaluate farmland bird assemblages better than we have. The same lesson might even extend to other specialist farmland species, such as rare arable plants and the brown hare.
When describing our results and conclusions, ecological consultants need to ensure information is presented in a clear and transparent way so that all parties involved in the development process can easily access and understand it. This ensures anyone can ask reasonable questions of a particular project. It also helps those involved in making challenging decisions - such as planning officers, council members or inspectors - to take ‘ecology’ into account when ‘balancing’ other complex associated factors. Factors, no doubt, others will also feel passionately about.
Thirdly, I believe the consultancy profession needs to better account for the ‘cumulative effect’ of development on farmland bird assemblages across the landscape, working with others to find suitable and appropriate mitigation measures to move towards a strategic approach across a landscape.
For example, ensuring the delivery of skylark plots**, which research shows can boost populations, and/or the provision of grassland habitat (in the best locations) that provides prey – such as caterpillars, spiders and Orthoptera - for farmland wildlife. I also hope, in those locations with the most important farmland bird assemblages, further thought is given to how best we protect them. This is important from a moral perspective, and so that current and future generations can enjoy them. An experience, as in Surrey, that has already been lost in some parts of the UK.
We must put the natural world at the forefront of the way we interact when it comes to development projects. The process is frequently emotionally charged, where camps of interests, with competing views, can become quickly established.
Practically speaking, one of the best ways to ensure the wildlife we all care about is considered, is to record the species we see and their location. Once you have made your records, submit them to the relevant local natural history recording societies and local biological record centres. This is often the first port of call of any ecological consultant. By finding out what others have recorded in an area, it helps an ecologist understand what might be present, and the risks and opportunities a project might provide.
If you see a brown hare, record the number you see and the location as precisely as you can. If you know you have skylarks, try counting the number of singing birds and submit your records. It is not just about lists of species either, which is sometimes a common misunderstanding. The relative numbers of species is important, and some have more weight in the planning process than others because of their scarcity or level of conservation priority.
(Photo by Steffi Wacker from Pexels)
Finally, and I guess this is a request, I ask that when you are commenting or even campaigning on a particular development, please remember that all the ecological consultants I know, have worked with, or do work with, care about wildlife. They care, as I know you do. They work with developers, but also with wildlife charities, local recording societies and/or public bodies too. They might be like me, someone who has been a wildlife geek for their entire lives, or they might have moved into ecology later on in life.
I would much rather the ecological profession was full of ecologists who care, are skilled and well trained to face the many challenges there no doubt are. Rather than those same people being driven away because of the adverse treatment they sometimes receive. It helps no one, especially the natural world, if those in the ecological consultancy sector are not motivated by a natural wish to do better for the natural world.
I have objected to applications in my own time and the planning process provides space for this. When I have objected, and/or advised others that I had concerns about the work completed and/or disagreed with the conclusions drawn I have some simple ‘rules.’ In each case, it is important to me that I treat others as I would want to be treated – no matter how much I disagree. I try to better understand alternative perspectives and mention those areas I agree with. We need to find ways to disagree better, and for me this means I try to be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger. Perhaps another more modern phrase captures it equally well? Play the ball and not the person.
Bio - Dr David W. Smith
David's first memories are of a green woodpecker on the playing field of his primary school in Rowledge, Hampshire, and staring out of the classroom of the same school whilst roe deer stared back from the edge of Alice Holt Forest.
He started bird watching early, initially around his local village of Wrecclesham in Surrey. His bird data from childhood observations was used in a public inquiry by the local community to oppose a proposal to extract gravel from meadows adjacent to the River Wey.
He's always been a self-confessed wildlife geek and studied Ecology at the University of East Anglia. After which he worked for the Falkland Island Fisheries Department as a Seabird Observer on longline fishing boats.
He returned to complete a PhD at the University of Reading, where he studied Orthoptera (grasshoppers and bush-crickets) and farmland birds in south Devon. During this time he was also a trustee of ORCA, a whale and dolphin conservation charity, and Surrey Bird Club, positions he held for several years, including the role of ORCA Chair between 2008 and 2011.
After 2.5 years working as a freelance ecologist and wildlife tour guide, David started working for ecological consultancies in 2009. He is now the Eastern Region Director of Ecological Planning and Research (EPR Ltd) and has worked in the ecological consultancy sector since April 2007. He lives in East Kent and calls himself a birder, ecologist, and wildlife conservationist.
* Development and Ecological Benefits
A five-year study, associated with development south of the M4 near Reading, compared the baseline data collected to inform planning (collected in 2008) with monitoring data collected in 2019. The number of invertebrate species recorded increased from 288 species to 560. Floral species also increased, including priority species at a national and local level.
Report can be downloaded at: https://www.epr.uk.com/reports-and-downloads/
Shinfield West and Langley Mead: Five Years On.
** Skylark Plots
Skylark plots are small (usually 4–16m2) undrilled patches within cereal fields that provide areas of bare ground and/or short vegetation, with little impact on overall yield. They are an effective means to benefit breeding Skylark. Conservation Evidence scores Skylark plots as 100% effective (with 80% degree of certainty). The assessment being based on 11 studies using experimental assessment methods. In another study, Donald and Morris (2005), in a before-and-after study in the UK recorded that fields with Skylark plots held 30% more birds than control fields.
Conservation Evidence: https://www.conservationevidence.com/intervention/view/540
Donald, P.F. and Morris, T.J. (2005). Saving the Skylark: new solutions for a declining farmland bird. British Birds, 98, 570-578.