Saturday, 25 October 2014

A very unfortunate hat-trick

For those outside the UK and a handful of Commonwealth countries I should explain that the term hat trick is derived from cricket, a game inexplicable to anyone who doesn't love it. A hat trick occurs when a bowler takes three wickets in succession, an unusual and impressive achievement for a bowler. The hat-trick I am referring is certainly not impressive. I would also prefer it if it were unusual, but I fear it may be getting less so. Three times this month I have been asked by clients to help them resolve problems caused to them by sub-standard bat surveys.

Sadly this appears to be a growing problem in this country. Local planning authorities (LPAs) are obliged to consider protected species such as bats before issuing permissions such as planning consent, listed building consent or demolition warrants. LPAs are becoming increasingly aware of their responsibilities and as a result their requests for bat surveys to be carried out are becoming more commonplace. This is all well and good, as the intended result is that bat roosts are discovered in time and appropriate licensing, mitigation and compensation measures included in a project. The result is the protection of species which already face a wide variety of threats.

The problem is that there is an ever-growing band of people who have spotted this niche in the market and are attempting to fill it. There's nothing wrong with that, after all I'm one of them and my company David Dodds Associates Ltd carries out hundreds of successful bat surveys every year, as do many other companies. But bat surveys aren't cheap - they involve expensive equipment and  teams of trained professionals, working unsociable hours. And where there's gold there will always be gold-diggers.

It's hard for someone to establish the bona fides of someone offering to carry out bat surveys. Does having a bat license mean you have the required skills, equipment, experience etc? Not necessarily. How about membership of CIEEM, the professional body for ecologists? Sadly no, it means very little (though CIEEM are working on that).  The result is that people occasionally find themselves hiring someone who looks the part, but turns out to be a disaster in the making.

Timing is all in bat surveying. Night time surveys cannot be carried out during at least five months of the year (sometimes as much as seven months, depending on latitude and prevailing weather). Where a client gets caught out with a sub-standard surveyor sometimes their project is held up for half a year before the damage can be resolved, often causing great expense and a negative view of bat conservation.

So how does the problem arise? In my experience there are a number of types of sub-standard bat survey, and each seems to stem from a different source:

  1. The well-meaning amateur. This is often a friend, relative or neighbour who knows something about bats and owns a bat detector. They are flattered to be asked to do a survey and possibly excited at the prospect of earning some money from bat conservation, which is normally a spare time enthusiasm. Their naivety means they either don't know about the BCT Bat Survey Guidelines or their lack of resources means they cut corners. They often lack the breadth of experience to interpret what they find. Their reports reflect their naivety and often don't provide the information an LPA requires to determine a planning application, causing the report to be rejected.
  2. The over-worked junior ecologist. Big ecology companies face a problem: professional ecology is bottom heavy and experience is at a premium. The result is that junior ecologists are often sent out to do bat surveys with a low level of experience, sometimes assisted by random office staff who have even less experience. Bat surveying is not just about putting a standard process into effect - it's about being able to understand what you see, often cryptic and fragmentary data. Back at the office the sub-standard data is written up into a highly professional report, adopting the advice and reviews of experienced seniors. But if the core field-work wasn't up to scratch the result is often embarrassment when a project is halted because a bat roost is discovered which was missed or misinterpreted as something less significant than it actually was.
  3. The cowboy ecologist. Sadly these exist in professional ecology as in any other field: people who cut corners, do half a job, or invent survey results (really - it happens!). They then tell their client whatever they want to hear and melt away. Often they get away with it, but sometimes their work results in a project being halted when a bat roost is found, causing embarrassment, expense and delay for the unfortunate client.
  4. The desperate one-man band. The last ten years has seen a proliferation of small ecology companies. Most are excellent free-lance ecologists, working within their limits to deliver great professional standards. But from time to time someone gets desperate to pay the mortgage and takes on a bat survey job they are not geared up for. Their report will stand out like a sore thumb as the night-time surveys will have been carried out by one person, rather than a proper survey team covering all elevations of a building and bat roosts get missed.
  5. The complete barking nonsense. A few years ago I was shown a bat survey report submitted to an LPA in support of a planning application. It was a single sheet of letter-headed paper from a pest control company, stating that their operative had sat in the attic for half an hour with an infra-red camera and hadn't seen any bats (Note - if this seems reasonable you really need to read the BCT Bat Survey Guidelines!). The best part was that the council ecologist had a fight on his hands over this, as one of the local councillors decided to weigh in and back to pest control company! 
Unfortunately in this era of austerity and cut-backs fewer and fewer LPAs can afford to have in-house ecologists reviewing reports. Increasingly bat survey reports are being accepted without being read by someone who has the knowledge and experience to be able to interpret them. This means that sub-standard surveys don't always get picked up, meaning those who produce them don't learn from their mistakes (or less charitably, they get away with their actions) and they go on to repeat them. 

The result of all this is that from time to time people who commission a bat survey in good faith find themselves with a rejected survey report and a long wait until next summer to commission a new one. Others find their projects halted because a bat roost has not been identified by sub-standard surveys and is then discovered or worse destroyed during work. Others still apply for a derogation license, based on the survey report and discover that either the survey was inadequate or the report doesn't provide a suitable mitigation and compensation scheme and their application is refused.

I don't mean this post to suggest that professional ecology in the UK isn't fit for purpose. We are fortunate to have well-developed conservation law and due process to maximise it's effectiveness. And we have many, many excellent professional ecologists. None of us is perfect and anyone is entitled to make a mistake and learn from it. But bat conservation is not well served when people hire apparent professionals in good faith and are let down. And that happens too often.