What it is like being an ecological consultant.

Written by: Karen Atkins
Published on: 11 Feb 2014

Working as an ecological consultant in professional practice is a rewarding and fast moving profession given how the planning system has changed in recent years, particularly around European Protected Species.

More and more developers understand the need to engage with these issues at the earliest stage and ecological consultants are increasingly engaged at the due diligence phase of a project, before land is acquired or outline plans have been developed.

At Atmos we like to use our own ecologists. We look for people who have an ecology degree and train them – because there’s a big advantage in having your experts in-house. When I was starting out, there were no ecology degrees offered in the UK and many ecologists like me came from an environmental science background.

I’d been inspired by going on nature walks with my dad and learning what I was looking at; In fact those identification skills have been of real value because they aren’t the kind of thing you can teach at university – the old skills of identifying a bird from its call, for instance.

I started my career with seasonal work on botanical surveys and supplemented my income with teaching until going full time in 1993. It was then that I started to gain experience of the planning system and understand how the information in ecology reports was used in the real world.

I began by talking to people in planning departments, asking how things were done and trying to understand the processes. Over the years, your experience grows like layers that build up bit by bit. There’s a real advantage in talking to someone with experience in this business because they have that strategic overview and know how the project life cycle works. I’ve been steeped in development planning for more than 20 years; I now understand the potential pitfalls!

My clients range from housing developers to energy suppliers who need to manage decommissioning and demolition of old power stations and construction of new ones. Genuinely, no two days are ever the same.

The biggest change I have noticed in recent years has been the move away from Natural England being responsible for advising on European Protected Species issues. The onus is now on the planning authority to be certain that the requirements of the legislation can be met before they determine an application. Some are really on the ball and have their own in-house ecologist to advise them - others are still taken by surprise because they haven’t realised the full implications of the changes. This uncertainty can cause difficulties for all parties.
It is up to the developer to present findings to the local authority that demonstrates they took protected species and nature conservation into account. So, these days you get two types of developer: those who have learned by bitter experience from having received poor advice on other sites and those who have understood that these risks can be managed like any other and come to you early.

But overall, I would say developers are increasingly clued up. The concentration on biodiversity has transformed the way the planning system is implemented to the extent where developers now largely avoid the designated nature conservation sites and take advice on protected species issues, because they understand the implications and consequences.

My advice is this: think about it is as early as possible; do due diligence and an early feasibility study; do some research on European Protected Species - because this is something that can have such an effect on the delivery and commerciality of a site.

The good news is that we are now very advanced in the way we survey and search for solutions. SPIDA, our award-winning, in-house GIS (Geographic Information System) software allows us to map out protected species’ habitats at the touch of a button – so even if a good head torch, waterproof paper and a pair of boots are still the basic tools of an ecologist in the field, technology is playing an increasing role too.

These days, I get out into the field far less often than in my younger days – I can’t jump over barbed wire fences like I used to in my 20s! I’m more involved in assembling a team and choosing the right project manager, although if it’s a strategic site for a client I will always be there for the first walk-over survey.

There is still a sense of vocation, but what’s nice is that you are working with the developer to help them achieve their ambitions while also ensuring the development is ecologically sound; it’s a balanced role. We report whatever we find and we have to report honestly, but we are there to work with the developer’s team by suggesting mitigation methods and finding solutions.

Often, as part of those answers, there are things you can suggest which don’t cost money and help the ecology of the site. A win-win for all concerned. That’s a great feeling and part of what makes the job so fulfilling.

Karen Atkins is Technical Director (Ecology) at Atmos Consulting.