When the Bat Conservation Trust’s (BCT’s) “Bat Survey Guidelines” were published in 2007, wind farms were excluded because there was little knowledge or experience of surveying to inform a wind farm proposal. The guidance documents that did exist (principally the “Eurobats” guidance and Natural England’s guidance notes (TIN051 and TIN059)) are quite open-ended with regard to survey methods and effort and there are discrepancies between them.
As a result, the wind energy sector has seen significant variation in bat survey methods and effort. In turn, this has created a confusing and unreliable basis for EIA. Unfortunately it has also provided fertile grounds for those wishing to challenge wind farm planning applications.
The (BCT) has now published guidelines for undertaking surveys for bats at proposed onshore wind farm sites. It has been developed with input and advice from across the ecology sector. A draft document was published in February 2011, which was sent out for consultation among a wide audience including statutory agencies and the wind energy industry. The final document was published in May 2011.
The new BCT guidance complements the existing guidance and attempts to identify a basis for consistency, to help provide confidence in the simple facts of a baseline survey.
Viewpoint – what does it mean for the wind energy sector?
Our associated Briefing Note (see below) examines in detail the implications of the new guidance, but here we briefly consider what it might mean for those promoting wind energy developments.
The guidelines have been widely consulted on, but their status is somewhat indeterminate at the moment. When they are wrapped up in the next edition of the general bat surveying guidance it is likely that they will be formally endorsed by conservation bodies of all sectors but even then they could not be said to be the last word on this matter – and certainly not part of any statutory guidance. What truly matters is that whatever the formal status of the guidance, it is very likely to be referred to and relied upon by decision takers and those who influence the decision takers. So long as its content is reasonable, then, as the best available guidance, this will be a situation that is difficult to second-guess.
The guidance itself is more prescriptive than anything we have seen in the UK, and at first glance it seems to set out a fairly onerous set of survey requirements. But it requires interpretation, particularly when it comes to identifying when one is dealing with a site of potentially high, medium or low risk to bats. Getting this right, and agreeing it with key ecology stakeholders, is central to getting the survey design right.
This will help to:
(a) Avoid challenges on the grounds of having too little survey information – a very real threat to some proposals.
(b) Avoid survey programmes going over the top, and incurring unnecessary costs.
It is clearly important that the guidelines are interpreted appropriately.
A concern that many professional ecologists have with published survey and mitigation guidance is not the guidance itself, but the way in which it is applied. Over the years we have seen established survey guidance treated by objectors, planning authorities and statutory and non-statutory consultees as “cook books” with fixed recipes, with little or no room left for professional judgement and interpretation.
Undoubtedly these guidelines will come to be applied, to a greater or lesser extent, in this manner. The obvious downsides of this need to be weighed against the benefit of having a broad standard, sufficiently detailed to provide a clear guide to the approach and effort required to establish a robust baseline understanding of the use of a site by bats. Not only will this help scope the level of bat survey work required in a more consistent manner but it will hopefully reduce the frequency of objections based on lack of survey effort.
For more information on the guidelines, contact Dr Peter Shepherd at our Oxford office on 01865-883833.