What’s it like to work with an Ecologist?

Onsite with the Ecologists

When invited to join our ecologists on a site visit of significant interest, as part of a whole team training exercise, I jumped at the chance.   As Marketing Manager, my days are spent devoted to the screen, so I was dying to find out what these ecologists get up to when out in the field.  It was the perfect opportunity to put the jargon into context; to learn what a Preliminary Ecological Appraisal (PEA) entails, how a Preliminary Roost Assessment (PRA) is executed and witness first-hand the work of our expert ecologists.

The Wildwood Ecology Team

On a delightfully bright, crisp, spring morning, the Wildwood team met at a disused RAF airfield near Avebury in Wiltshire.  Led by ecologist, Peter Hacker, supported by Principal Ecologist Ivi Szaboova, this was a prime opportunity to bring the team together and allow our newest members to learn how these key services, the PEA and PRA, are performed. 

ecologist team

The Site

The site was certainly captivating with far reaching views across open countryside; it felt like an abandoned war film set, with an eerie array of derelict buildings in various states of disrepair. An impressive aircraft hangar, built in 1916, is a key feature and understood to be one of a number of Grade II listed buildings onsite to be converted.

A majestic avenue of poplar trees provided a glimpse of the future development’s potential for a statement entrance.  Restored and converted to form an exclusive residential development, the site clearly boasts huge potential. Sensitive and creative conversion aims to retain as much historic fabric as possible in keeping with the surrounding landscape, whilst maintaining and enhancing the natural habitats and biodiversity of the site.

aircraft hangar

The Project

At Wildwood Ecology, we relish the opportunity to work with like-minded, innovative architects such as those responsible for the development of this particular site.  Developers recognised its ecological significance and understand the likelihood of potential constraints associated with protected species. By appointing Wildwood well ahead of works taking place, and working together from the outset, they have the best chance of meeting planning requirements and eliminating delays. Wildwood’s experienced ecologists will provide a comprehensive assessment of the site, advising on necessary surveys, and offering pragmatic solutions to meet the demands of planning regulations.      

The Preliminary Roost Assessment

High-visibility clothing, protective headgear and site maps distributed, risk assessments completed and signed, the team split to complete the PRA for two distinct areas of buildings.

Ecologists boast rare superpowers that I never quite appreciated – with the nose of a bloodhound, they’re able to sniff out bat urine at 20m and have hawk-eye vision for spotting signs of life. Their attention to detail is second to none and I can immediately see that no stone goes unturned in carrying out a large-scale exercise such as this.  At first glance, and when standing inside as the wind whipped through the window openings, the buildings devoid of rooves seemed to offer very little protection for a hibernating bat. 

The PRA is an assessment, not only of the indication that bats are present and actively using the building but also the potential suitability of the building for roosting bats. It also takes into account the land surrounding the building. In this case, the landscape provided ample foraging ground, with little noise disturbance or light pollution from local residences.  Looking for crevices and spaces in the brickwork where bats might find shelter and scouring the floor for bat droppings was the first job in hand. Whilst no bat droppings were located, an impressive selection of owl pellets were collected and identified as those of a barn owl. 

Peter Hacker explained “When looking for roosts, bats prefer stable conditions with constant temperatures and humidity. The buildings we have here will have highly variable internal conditions and thus offer low suitability for use by bats”.

bat survey

Crevice in the brick work 

owl pellets

Finding owl pellets

The Preliminary Ecological Appraisal

Meeting for an alfresco lunch to compare notes and discuss findings provided an appreciation of the complexities of moderating the assessment process. What one ecologist might initially consider a building of low suitability for bats, another might grade of greater significance. Conversation and collaboration is critical and I begin to understand the significance of effective communication as an ecologist, amongst each other and with clients too.

Following assessment of the buildings and structures onsite, it was time to carry out the Preliminary Ecological Appraisal – a scoping survey where all habitats on site are recorded using either the Phase 1 or UK Habitat classification system, with details of flora present within each habitat recorded, along with any observations of fauna (or evidence of).

These preliminary surveys give ecologists a great baseline, enabling them to determine the potential for protected or notable species to utilise the site, plan species specific surveys that may be required, and gain an initial insight into the possible constraints and opportunities for the project.

For such a large area it was important to take time to walk the site systematically, ensuring to take in all areas and habitats. Starting with recording the floral species in the grassland that covered the majority of the site, the team then began mapping and recording areas of scrub, hedgerows and treelines. An active badger sett was uncovered, and time was taken to assess the feature for signs of activity. Old barbed wire adjacent to the sett entrances showed evidence of badger hair caught in the barbs. The holes were the characteristic D shape, with no debris or cobwebs covering the entrances – definitely one to note for further surveys! Working with  clients in the early stages of a project allows for the least disturbance to wildlife. Although mitigation equates to further work, it is always preferable to be able to leave a badger sett undisturbed and plan the project around it; allowing the two to co-exist.

Preliminary Ecological Survey

Preliminary Ecological Appraisal

Mapping and recording areas of scrub

It was amazing to see how quickly nature can take over a disused area and how species reside happily in a habitat that is a mix of man-made infrastructure and greenery. An area of open grassland on the edge of the site, was  littered with rubble piles and building materials including corrugated iron sheets, roofing felt and plywood.  It’s important for developers not to underestimate these habitats as they can become ideal refugia for a number of species. The ecologists’ eyes lit up with thoughts of the reptiles that might be utilising this particular area! Some of these materials are frequently used by ecologists when carrying out reptiles surveys, so their presence, along with tussocky unmanaged grassland, is a great sign that reptiles may be present. Ecologists too noted the habitats in the vicinity when determining suitability for protected species. They need to be pragmatic – if the habitat in the footprint of the development isn’t suitable for a species or there are considerable barriers to movement between their habitat and the development, there may not be a need to investigate further. However in this case, the suitable habitat will be directly affected, and there were no barriers to movement between the site and the wider landscape.

People Planet Purpose

My day onsite with the team was time well spent. So what have I learnt?  I’ve learnt more than anything just how important it is to get out of the office and experience how we deliver our services! I have a far greater understanding of the day-to-day work of an ecologist, but I am also able to better appreciate the professionalism, expertise and attention to detail demonstrated by the Wildwood Ecology team.  As a company, we take pride in our strong vision and clear values, but it was satisfying to see the team show just how far we go to do more than just ‘talk the talk’.  

I especially look forward to seeing this project progress, under the careful guidance of our expert team, who will undoubtedly be working closely with the client to ensure this development secures the best possible outcome for both people and planet – one that works with, and alongside, nature.

Lucy Larkman, Marketing Manager