Over the last few weeks we have all had to adapt to the rapidly changing situation with regards to COVID-19. As mentioned in our previous post, we have been closely following UK government advice and have modified our methods of operation accordingly.
We thought it useful in this post to provide a summary of recent updates that are relevant to ecology work and planning applications and take a look at how our wildlife may be responding to the changes.
With regards to fieldwork, on 9 April 2020, Defra provided specific guidance to CIEEM. This states that ecologists ‘should be able to continue with outdoor work, including ecological surveying and supervision, where they can continue to follow Public Health of England guidelines’.
With regards to development proposals, planning applications and wildlife licensing, on 16 April, Natural England published a guidance note which includes the following information:
● they are currently only able to accept electronic communications
● statutory requirements for consulting Natural England on terrestrial and marine planning, licensing and development proposals, and associated environmental assessments continue to apply
● their Discretionary Advice Service, providing pre-application and post consent advice, continues to operate but cases that pose the ‘greatest risks or deliver the most value for the natural environment’ will be prioritised
● at present Natural England are responding to planning consultations and license applications in the usual way and are aiming to maintain advice in line with published standards, there may, however, be a requirement to extend deadlines, and again, cases that pose the greatest risks or deliver the most value for the natural environment will be prioritised
● where surveys cannot be undertaken or other environmental information provided due to COVID-19 restrictions, Natural England will be as flexible as possible in accepting the best available information, which will be considered on a case-by-case basis
● they advise that licensable works should not commence unless they can adhere to the latest government guidance. Contingency plans should be submitted to Natural England wherever they would significantly alter avoidance, mitigation, compensation or monitoring.
In addition to changes in working practices, there has been speculation and reports about wildlife in the UK and how it is being affected by the restrictions.
In urban areas, that are now much quieter due to reductions in both traffic and people, there have been sightings of wildlife venturing into these areas that would not ordinarily be present. For species affected by noise, such as birds and bats, there may be better opportunities for them to communicate and breed; however, if restrictions are lifted over the next few weeks, some birds may find that they have made their nests in less-than-ideal places that may suddenly be threatened by human activity.
A reduction in air and light pollution is likely to be beneficial for wildlife, and with less movement of people and maintenance taking place, plant species may begin to occupy sites, leading to a level of ‘rewilding’.
It is worth bearing in mind that sites subject to inactivity may well be colonised by wildlife during lockdown, which need to be appropriately managed before activities resume. If you have any concerns, we’re here to help so do get in touch.