Nature conservation first became a recognised activity around the beginning of the twentieth century, with Wicken Fen becoming the first nature reserve when purchased by the National Trust in 1895. The forerunner of the County Wildlife Trusts, the Society for the Promotion of Nature Reserves was founded in. The name gives something of a clue to the thinking at that time – protection of wildlife in special reserves. Active management and conservation became more of philosophy from the 1950s, as people became more aware of the need for active management, be it coppicing in woodlands or grazing of grassland reserves. The introduction of myxomatosis in the 1950s and the loss of 95% of the rabbit population had a particularly harmful effect on many chalk grassland sites. The emphasis on management of habitats, and more recently on large scale landscape scale conservation has continued as conservation has achieved a higher profile and greater resources.
However other legislation is now adding complications that hark back to an era of protection. The 1994 European Habitat Regulations, passed in 1994 created a range of protected species, including all bat species, otters and the dormouse. This made it an offence to:
• Damage or destroy or nesting or resting place of a protected species
• Deliberately capture, injure or kill a protected species
• Deliberately or significantly disturb a local population
Woodland managers could cover their actions if they could show that any such harm was incidental to lawful operations, and reasonable precautions had been taken to avoid harm.
The regulations were fundamentally changed and tightened in 2007, removing a defence of harm being the incidental result of a lawful operation, such as many woodland management operations. Therefore it is especially important that managers have:
• Carried out necessary checks for European Protected Species
• Planned operations carefully
• Sought a licence to disturb, if necessary
The Forestry Commission have produced a checklist which is a good starting point for an assessment of your site. This asks a number of questions:
• Is your site within the known ranges of any protected species? In the south west that means yes to dormice, otters and bats. Other species that you may need to consider are great crested newts, sand lizards and smooth snakes.
• Does your site contain suitable habitats?
• Are there any records for species on your site or nearby? The most comprehensive records are held by County Biological Records Centres. A free web-based resource, although it records are far from comprehensive, is the Nature Biodiversity Network website; this can be helpful for giving the range or natural distribution of a species.
• Have you any on site signs or evidence of protected species? Expert surveys can be very expensive and time consuming, but a good amateur naturalist can also bring useful perspective and knowledge to a site assessment.
• If you are planning work with a risk to protected species, consider getting a professional assessment, and if necessary survey, undertaken by an ecologist with professional indemnity insurance.
If you have, or have evidence to suggest that protected species may be present it is essential that you follow the correct guidelines for those species, to protect yourself legally. The Forestry Commission guidelines are the best starting points, and we have included links to the relevant publications below, to help you. This article is an introduction only and designed to raise awareness; it is not official guidance, and will not protect you in a legal case.
Dormice very common in the south west, and have been found in many areas other than hazel woods, including hedgerows, conifer plantations and even the central reservation of the A38. While hazel is a preferred habitat, recent surveys show that they will tolerate and thrive in a wide range of woodland types. So a lack of hazel does not mean no dormice!
• Ensure overall woodland management maintains levels of young trees and scrub, particularly hazel.
• Season of work: autumn is ideal, and also misses bird nesting season. Spring (April/May) is also OK, but may give you issues with nesting birds. Winter is fine for coppicing and felling, but don’t disturb the ground, as this is where the dormice will be hibernating. Avoid work in the period June to August, which is the main breeding season.
• Phase works so only part of a wood is disturbed at each operation.
• If the woodland management is likely to permanently remove dormouse habitat, or disturb it at a time when dormice are breeding or hibernating, you may need a licence from Natural England to be able to undertake the work.
• More detail can be found in “Guidance on Managing Woodlands with Dormice in England” (Forestry Commission). Link from http://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/INFD-9ENC24
Otters have increased dramatically in numbers in the last thirty years, as pollution in rivers has been reduced. Otters particularly favour small patches of wet woodlands, carr and thick scrub or woods that are close to rivers, canals, ponds, lakes, and marshes, may be used by otters. They favour large, undisturbed woods with dense scrub for breeding, but have much wider home ranges for foraging. Any woodland with a small stream is therefore likely to have occasional otter passage. The best signs of otter presence are either tracks or spraints (droppings) which are usually seen within a metre of the water’s edge at regular signing sites such as at the foot of bridges, the saddle of overhanging bankside trees or large bankside and in-channel rocks.
Some guidelines for otters:
• Avoid clear felling in river corridors
• Avoid sediment run-off into watercourse – plan harvesting etc
• Protect old trees and deadwood by watercourses
• Avoid mechanised operations (tractors) within 30 metres of a known holt or resting place
• Leave brash from any thinning or harvesting – this may be used by otters
• If you have an active otter holt within your wood, you may need to consider protection measures such as temporary fencing around harvesting areas, or applying for a licence from Natural England.
• More detail can be found in “Guidance on managing woodlands with otter in England” (Forestry Commission). Link from http://www.forestry.gov.uk/forestry/INFD-9ENC24
The 17 species of bat found breeding in Britain are all protected under the Habitats Regulations. All bat species will use woodland and woodland edge habitats, at least during part of the year, whether to forage, roost, breed or hibernate. Six species are woodland specialists, being reliant on woodland to provide key habitats for foraging and/or roosting during important periods of the year. These are Bechstein’s bat, Barbastelle, Natterers bat, Noctule, Lesser horseshoe bat and Brown Long-eared bat.
Some guidelines for bats:
• In the woodland compartments where you intend to undertake management activities, conduct a winter or spring walk-through survey (before trees come into leaf) to identify potential bat roosts.
• You must retain any trees with known roosts
• Hollow trees are potential roost sites so they should also be retained.
• Old trees with cracks, crevices and ivy as well are all good roosting sites and are best retained.
• If there is an abundance of potential roosts, ensure only a small proportion are felled in any ten year period
• Avoid major gaps in the canopy and isolated clumps of trees, as this helps keep habitat connectivity, especially along watercourses and old hedges
• Retain dead wood trees and ensure long term succession of older trees
• Bat boxes are a good way of attracting wildlife and can also help identify what species you have in a wood.
You can apply for a licence to carry out operations that will risk committing an offence, but your application will have to be able to demonstrate the operation is necessary to either:
• Preserve public health or public safety or other imperative reasons of overriding public interest
• Prevent the spread of disease
• Or prevent serious damage to livestock, foodstuffs for livestock, crops, vegetables, fruit, growing timber or any other forms of property or to fisheries.
You must also be able to show that there is no satisfactory alternative, and that the action authorised will not be detrimental to the maintenance of the species concerned at a favourable conservation status in their natural range.
The Smooth Snake and Sand Lizard are also protected by the same legislation. Both species are characteristic of southern heathlands, and are relatively rare (see maps opposite). However, if your woodland is part of a suitable habitat area, then protecting these two species is especially important.
If at all possible the most practical way forward for woodland owners is to follow the Forestry Commission’s best practice guidelines. However, in a few cases, such as public safety it may be necessary to obtain a licence, in which case Wildlife Woodlands would be pleased to advise. We can also undertake woodland assessments, and provide specific guidelines for individual woods, for example identifying trees to be retained as bat roosts, or areas of optimum dormouse habitat. We firmly believe in active management of our woods, and by providing practical recommendations we will endeavour to ensure this remains the case for our clients.
A licence effectively gives you permission to break the law. Natural England would far rather that you avoid the disturbance or impact in the first place. Neither can you apply for a licence “just in case” there may be a disturbance. Natural England will need to see survey data to show that protected species are present and are genuinely at risk.
The European Habitat Regulations have had a very beneficial effect on ensuring best practice on development sites. They have been great for providing a legal means of protection against unnecessary habitat loss, and ensuring high levels of mitigation and compensation where development does go ahead. However their effect on woodland management is more questionable. Many woods have a high ecological interest because of the way they have been managed for generations. If you have dormice then you, or your predecessors, must have been doing something right. And the best habitats are actively managed, with coppicing of hazel helping achieve structural diversity and renewal of the hazel itself.
Many woodlands are left unmanaged as it is not economic to do so. The government are now targeting getting two thirds of our woodlands back into active management. Yet the European legislation is imposing more hurdles and costs before any positive management is undertaken.
Legally the balance between the need to manage habitat and the requirement not to harm protected species remains unclear. As a woodland owner you are at risk of potential prosecution from individuals or organisations who are focussed on the protection of individual species. Sadly these people seem to think that they need take no responsibility for maintaining the habitat which supports the wildlife in the first place. In an ideal world, it would be good to get back to the 1994 situation, where woodland management, with proper checks and safeguards, has a degree of automatic protection. Manage the habitat well and the individual species will benefit. However, this is not going to happen, and more realistically we need some better case law to protect the interests of woodland owners.
However, a responsible owner will always have to take the presence of protected species into consideration. The Forestry Commission pages and guidelines are probably the best and most practical publications available, so make sure you are aware of what they contain, and ensure that you maintain a written record of how you have followed them for your own site.
References for Further Information
Forestry Commission Habitats Regulations Guidance and Information. With onward links to guidelines for different species.
Dormouse Conservation Handbook (Natural England)
Ecology of the European Otter, Conserving Natura 2000 Rivers, Ecology Series No. 10 (Paul Chanin). Free download from here.
Woodlands Management for Bats (Forestry Commission, Natural England and Bat Conservation Trust)