Building bat better: the ecologists making development work for nature
They help strike a balance between the needs of wildlife and UK home construction, but do they delay much needed development? Far from it, these environmentalists claim
In a typically boastful speech that was arguably heavier in chunks than deeds, Boris Johnson promised in July to revive the UK’s failing economy with a bonfire of planning regulations, making it easier for developers to “build, build, build”. The days of “triton counting” were over, the prime minister proclaimed, by making a scapegoat from an amphibian protected by obstructing construction.
Under the EU Habitats Directive, developers must conduct wildlife studies and provide alternative habitats for protected species such as crested newts. But an investigation commissioned by the previous government found that neither newts nor other animals were responsible for delaying construction works. In some cases, it was the developers themselves, who bought land and then failed to implement their plans for the sites.
Positive News spoke to three ‘newt counters’ about the speech, their unusual careers, and why conservation matters.
Jim Grundy, Senior Amphibian Ecologist, Cheshire Wildlife Trust
“I was just a postman interested in newts,” recalls Jim Grundy, who made an unlikely career change from Royal Mail to the Cheshire Wildlife Trust after publishing a book about newts. The amphibian has captivated him ever since he pulled one out of a pond as a child, with a net that his grandmother had bought for him.
“Taking a great crested newt out of the water is something that stays with you for the rest of your life,” he says. “They are like dinosaurs.”
“I was just a postman interested in newts,” says postie accountant turned amphibian Jim Grundy. Image: Helena Dolby
His fascination led him to write Tritons in their pond and garden, a “labor of love” written in the evenings after his round of post. “I saw it as my ticket to fame and glory,” he jokes, but in a way it was. Generating praise from other merfolk fans, the book gave him a job counting the creatures.
The role required Grundy to conduct newt studies, estimate populations, and work with developers to retain or create new habitats for amphibians at their sites. “I saw the rationale behind this,” he says. “But I thought there had to be a better system.”
Grundy later helped develop the district-level licensing scheme (DLL), which is eliminating the practice of counting newts on development sites. “Boris hasn’t done his research,” says Grundy. “The Newt count is over in England.”
“They’re like dinosaurs,” Grundy says of the great crested newt. Image: Helena Dolby
Under the DLL, triton polls are no longer necessary. And while developers are encouraged (but not required) to retain newt habitats on their sites, they can now incorporate them into public spaces, such as greens and parks, whereas previously they had to create them in addition to those spaces. However, developers are required to fund new crested newt ponds in other parts of the district, where existing populations have the greatest potential for growth.
“DLL has been running in Cheshire for about a year now and we have installed over 120 newt ponds,” says Grundy. “That is one of the largest pond building exercises in the country.”
While there is no data to verify the efficacy of the scheme, Grundy is optimistic that it will boost newt populations, which like many species have declined in recent decades. “DLL is an opportunity to change course,” he says.
Laura Grant, Lead Ecologist, Ecology by Design
‘Batgirl’ Laura Grant searches for her favorite subject in an Oxfordshire forest. Image: Sam Bush
“I’ve found myself in some fun situations trying to find bats,” says Laura Grant, who has followed the creatures into the slums of Mumbai, the caves of Kenya, and the rainforests of Costa Rica, all for fun. “I bought a cheap bat detector while I was in college, which I have since carried around the world,” he says.
Grant’s passion for bats later became a profession. He got a job as an ecologist and got his bat license, which allows him to monitor animals. Their knowledge helps developers build bat-friendly properties.
“If we don’t provide for wildlife, we are also selling ourselves short,” she says. “Habitats and species interactions are so complex that we should do everything we can to conserve biodiversity and make sure it is integrated into all of our lives so that we truly value and value it. We don’t know what we have until it’s over. “
Grant searching for bats in an Oxfordshire church: Image: Sam Bush
The best part of Grant’s job? “It is satisfying to find a pragmatic solution that will help [bat] conservation. Plus, being called a ‘batgirl’ on construction sites never goes out of style. “
Like many environmentalists, Grant was disappointed by the prime minister’s speech. “I think the government is using newts as a scapegoat for many broader housing delivery failures,” he says, adding: “I don’t see how cheaper or faster construction is worth the long-term impacts on biodiversity, the history natural, visual amenity or our mental or physical health ”.
Some developers are willing to accommodate bats on their sites, says Grant, who recalls a visit where he showed builders a live bat.
“They were all so interested and engaged and had a lot of questions,” he says. “[Then] I showed them the design of the features so that the bats were incorporated into the roofs and when I returned they had put at least two in each building, much more than I had specified. They wanted to make a difference. It was beautiful to see how a little education could make a big difference. “
Chris Dieck, Supervisor of Ecology, RSPB
Chris Dieck has the bragging rights of a bat license. Image: Damien Hockey
“They’re bright little creatures,” says Chris Dieck, who, like Grant, belongs to the exclusive group of bat ecologists. Dieck is also entitled to brag (although he doesn’t seem like the braggart type) to a bat license. This gives you permission to manipulate mammals, put identification rings around their legs, and generally “get up and down” an animal that most people only see as a dark silhouette hovering through the night sky.
Contrary to the prime minister’s rhetoric, wildlife studies like the ones he works on are not to blame for delaying developments, Dieck believes.
“There are several reviews from the government itself that claim this is categorically not true,” he says, adding that property developers sitting on the ground is a major cause of delays.
Where Number 10 sees bureaucracy, Dieck sees opportunities for bat-human symbiosis. “From my work with bats, I would say that in 90-95 percent of all cases [development] it can go ahead and the needs of the bats can still be taken into account, ”he says.
In 90-95 percent of all cases, the [development] you can go ahead and the needs of the bats can still be taken into account
Dieck has mixed feelings about the government’s development plans. “It is alarming from a bat’s point of view that things like the development of abandoned farm buildings [a common bat habitat] you can go ahead without planning it, ”he says. “But there are encouraging noises. There is a commitment to developing a national framework of green infrastructure standards, although there are very few details on how that will actually happen. “
Dieck says the developments could actually help increase bat numbers, particularly where they emerge on “bat-hostile” arable farmland, if developers installed bat boxes on properties.
Making such concessions to wildlife is our “moral imperative,” Dieck believes, and ultimately serves our best interests. “There are many articles that categorically state that an intact natural environment is directly beneficial to us,” he says.
Lead image: Environmentalist Laura Grant tracking bats in Oxfordshire