There are over 250 species of birds that breed in the UK. Many of our species are resident all year round, but we also host many wintering populations and summer migrants. Many activities can impact wild birds, particularly during the nesting season (March- August). These include; cutting trees, hedges and other vegetation, buildings development or demolition. In addition to habitat loss this can create disturbance such as noise, lighting and vibration.
Wildlife and Countryside Act
All wild birds (including both eggs and nests) are protected by law, under the Wildlife and Countryside Act (WCA, 1981). Some species have further protection when nesting. Many habitats used by birds are also protected, because Local Planning Authorities have a duty to conserve their biodiversity. Unlike other protected species there is no provision for a licence to allow wild birds to be disturbed, or nests destroyed, as a part of land development.
Birds can be found in almost every habitat type and nearly every development site has the potential to support breeding bird populations. Nesting birds should be considered at every stage of any development.
In line with planning guidelines, developers should aim to retain all suitable habitat for use by wild birds wherever possible. The primary measure to avoid harming wild birds is timing works outside the breeding season. This is generally cited as March to August, however, birds’ breeding seasons vary, depending on the species and on weather conditions.
A suitably qualified ecologist will be able to decide if surveys are required, if it is deemed reasonable nesting birds will be impacted. After a survey the ecologist will assess the impacts and address those identified through avoidance, mitigation and enhancement measures. Surveys for wild birds include barn owls, breeding birds, wintering birds, species listed in Schedule 1 of WCA (1981) and those listed as Birds of Conservation Concern.
If works have to be undertaken during the nesting season, the Ecological Clerk of Works (ECoW) will carry out an immediate check before site clearance. If birds’ nests with eggs or chicks are found, these will have to be protected until after the young have fledged. Other measures could be avoiding areas of the site and habitat used by breeding birds or to ensure important habitats are protected and maintained.
As a result of works, replacement nesting sites should be provided before any are removed. The most common method is through the provision of nest boxes, a range of types can be used to cover a variety of species. New habitat can be created, or existing habitat enhanced, through the planting of species of high value to wild birds and improving links to habitats.
In conclusion, bird surveys used to assess the impacts in order to inform avoidance, mitigation and compensation methods are an essential part of any development project and should be considered at the earliest possible instance.
A note about netting
Recently, netting became part of the media conversation, as a measure to prevent birds nesting. Netting is a widely used method of mitigation and although, not illegal, considerable concerns have been raised by professionals, wildlife enthusiasts and the public. There are concerns over its potential to trap birds and other wildlife, creating a welfare issue. The best practice is for development to be undertaken at the correct time of year, rather than using nets.
Nature is good for our health and happiness
In addition to the legal protection offered to nesting birds or the well recorded decline of bird species, there is another important reason to consider birds during any development. There is growing evidence to suggest that a connection with nature helps us be happier and healthier people.
“Exposure to birds, and other aspects of nature, can have positive effects on people’s mental and physical health.”
Gardens have been demonstrated as important nesting habitat for a wide range of species. Research has concluded that those living in areas with more birds, shrubs and trees are less likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and stress.
Proposed developments can easily and effortlessly make positive planning decisions that would benefit urban birds, including the integration of nest boxes for example for house sparrow and starling which are red list species.
Jess Snow, Ecologist