Whenever I give a talk about my work I tell people that I am an Environmental Consultant and then quickly clarify this by saying, “but not one of those consultants.”
‘Those consultants are people whose work primarily comes from building developers and whose day to day activities involve analysing the wildlife value of land and then working out how the developer can legally clear the site and shift any protected species elsewhere.
This is a very basic definition of what consultancies do. They also encourage developers to leave areas untouched and create schemes to mitigate for habitat loss but I have always proudly declared that, “I would rather stack shelves in Tesco than do this kind of work.” In the past, I freely admit, I have referred to these type of consultants as ‘black hearted’ and their consultancies as ‘the dark side.’
However, over the last few years I have had enough with such ‘them and us’ definitions. I have been deeply saddened over the polarisation of the country and the unwillingness of both sides to listen to each others concerns and seek common ground. So, in an effort to practice what I preach, I contacted one of ‘those’ consultants in order to listen to their side of the story.
Dave Smith of EPR Ecological Consultancy was good enough to give me a whole day of his time to show me and Matt Hawkins across a proposed development site and answer our questions. It was a frank and fascinating discussion in which I learnt a lot.
I was particularly interested in the opportunities around Biodiversity Net Gain. This is a proposed system where (to put it crudely) a developer has to create 10% more habitat than has been lost. The details of this scheme are still being worked out but developers can create additional habitat on site or off site. It could provide a huge new pot of money for habitat enhancements and appears to be a step in the right direction for our wildlife if it is used correctly.
Creating new habitats on land with little current wildlife value could be a real win for wildlife. Destroying wildlife rich brownfield scrub land with breeding turtle doves and creating plantations of tree tubes will not do anything to protect biodiversity.
However, I also accept that it is possible for developments to add value for nature by creating ponds, woodlands and wildflower meadows on land that has been intensively farmed with chemicals. Again, it all depends on the value of the habitat being destroyed.
I still think the problem is that too many developers are being given planning permission on land that has high existing value for wildlife and that currently developers pay consultants directly. It would be far better for wildlife and far less stressful for consultants if instead, developers had to pay a tariff that could then be used to pay for independent consultants to survey land and write the impact assessments.
Of course the other problem is that this epidemic of development has done nothing to solve the so called ‘housing crisis’ as developers have wasted land building 4 bed executive houses instead of the ‘starter’ homes people actually need and nothing is being done to tackle the root of the problem which lies in the cost of accommodation in London and 20,000 homes in the capital currently sitting empty.
Still, these fundamental issues are outside the control of the consultancies and what I did learn from Dave is that there were similarities between our jobs. The tactics he uses and the ethical dilemmas he wrestles with when dealing with developers were not so far removed from those I employ when working with farmers. I also prioritise the needs of some species over others and smooth over differences of opinion in order to create good relationships.
Ultimately I feel the difference lies in the client. EPR’s clients are mainly developers. My client and the client of the people who pay me is ultimately wildlife. The needs of wildlife are always at the heart of what I do and because of this my job brings me fulfilment and joy on a daily basis.
So, at the end of the day I haven’t changed my mind. I still think that shelf stackers in Tesco do something of greater moral good and fundamental value than ecological consultants that work for building developers. It is my prerogative to think this but I have learnt that there is common ground and there may in the future be some projects on which it is worth joining hands over the barricades to create something of real value for our wildlife.
I would very much like to thank Dave Smith and EPR for giving me their time.
Back on the farms of North Kent I was buzzing with happiness after the Burden Bros created new scrapes and rills on wet grassland at Mockett’s Farm on the Isle of Sheppey. This work, undertaken at their own expense, should really enhance this site for waders. Location, Location, Location is at least 50% of the game, I have learned, when it comes to attracting those pesky lapwing to breed. The other 50% is made up of correct management, water availability, having insect rich grassland that has ideally never been reseeded and a dash of predator control. Luckily we have most of this at Mockett’s and the birds have previously shown that they love the site. With these new wet, muddy features I am hoping for a healthy crop of chicks next spring.
Finally this month I gave two presentations to the Upper and Lower Medway Internal Drainage Board. After years of experience as Biodiversity Lead with the River Stour IDB I am itching to use my knowledge to revise the Medway Board’s Biodiversity Action Plan and potentially look at a wider programme of work.
Nothing has yet been agreed but this project has massive potential to improve habitat and water management across Kent from Tunbridge Wells to Sittingbourne. This is the sort of work that I love. The opportunity to get in on the ground level at something truly exciting that could have such positive benefits for our wildlife. This is what I work for, something which brings true satisfaction and joy to my heart.