There has been a significant amount of press coverage regarding the use of netting by housing developers who cover hedgerows and trees to stop birds nesting. Developers view netting as a quick and easy solution yet conversely, the public see it as a cruel measure to stop birds from using their natural habitat. This negative publicity has escalated to a national level, with the likes of Designer & Presenter Kevin McCloud MBE discussing it on the BBC’s The One Show, Broadcaster and Naturalist Chris Packham describing it as “utterly abhorrent”, along with the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) and Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) issuing a joint statement strongly advising against its use.
The use of netting during nesting season is purely designed to prevent birds from nesting in hedgerows and trees, that could potentially leave the developer facing potentially costly delays. It has been a method that developers have adopted for many years but has only recently been brought to the public’s attention with the resultant recent public outcry causing a number of developers to rethink their strategies.
Many examples of netting have recently hit the headlines, with one particularly contentious example involving the netting of cliffs hosting sand martin nesting holes; preventing the sand martins from nesting after migrating from Africa. Whilst netting can be effective if installed correctly and checked regularly, many of the examples we have seen are poorly installed with significant gaps beneath and at the sides of hedgerows. Clearly this type of netting will never serve its intended purpose and could result in fatalities to birds and other fauna due to entanglement. The public are also very clearly against the method of netting, and as such, developers will need to look for alternative solutions to future issues.
What alternative recommendations do Ecologists usually suggest?
When vegetation removal is required at a development site and an ecology survey has been undertaken, the project ecologist will usually recommend removal of vegetation outside the nesting season. If this cannot be achieved, ecological supervision will be required to check the vegetation for nesting birds takes place immediately prior to removal. If nesting birds are found, an offset distance from the nest is required to be implemented until the chicks have fledged and the nest is no longer in use. Furthermore, as stated by CIEEM and the RSPB, the preference within any proposal should be the retention and enhancement of existing vegetation in the landscaping scheme where possible, and we fully support this approach. However, it must be appreciated that this is not always possible within the design and that the removal of vegetation to facilitate access points, for example, is sometimes necessary.
As a consequence of so much negative publicity around the subject, coupled with CIEEM and the RSPB advising against netting, what can developers do to reduce the risk to the birds that are using the hedgerows to nest in, whilst maintaining a good public image?
How can developers reduce the risk to nesting birds?
One of the overarching principles to management of vegetation should be to ensure that vegetation is not removed or irrevocably damaged prior to planning being granted. Destructive measures of mature vegetation must not be undertaken at this stage as good practice, as the resultant loss to biodiversity is unlikely to be reinstated if planning is refused. Measures such as pre-emptive felling should be avoided as it does not support existing green infrastructure being integrated with the design proposal, often resulting in little vegetation or immature planting being dominant at a development site until new planting establishes.
One possible option for developers in regard to nesting birds is to undertake hedge laying following significant pruning back. This is a traditional management process involving cuts at the base of the hedge and laying the hedgerow species along the ground (although admittedly that is an over-simplified explanation). Whilst this does not entirely preclude birds from nesting, due to the reduced height and shelter provided, it may reduce the likelihood that birds will view the hedge as suitable for nest building. This process also promotes the growth and continued health of the hedgerow in the long-term. The positive outcome of this course of action is that in the instance that planning is refused, the developer will likely have left the hedge in a better condition for future growth than when they found it. There are undoubtedly potential cost implications to the developer which will likely continue to be the main driver; however, the benefits from a public relations perspective in comparison to installing netting, are clear.
So other than significant pruning followed by laying of the hedge, is there anything else that can be done?
For trees, where the process will encourage future growth (i.e. willow, lime, poplar etc.), pollarding may be an option to remove suitable nesting habitat in the short-term and promote the growth of the tree in the long-term (should planning not be approved). However, this must be considered against statutory legislation protecting trees such as Tree Preservation Orders (TPOs) and Conservation Areas, and it may not preclude species such as crows who build larger nests from nesting. An Arboricultural Consultant should provide tree work recommendations and be consulted on measures affecting trees.
Where nesting provision is to be lost, we always encourage the installation of nesting habitat (both artificial via bird boxes and natural tree/hedge planting) to reduce the effect of the loss of available habitat for nesting birds. This should ideally be done in advance of the vegetation being removed.
With careful planning and continual ecological input, not just at the early stages of a proposal but throughout the planning process, the perceived requirement for netting can usually be avoided. Retention of existing vegetation, particularly trees and hedgerows can add maturity to the aesthetics of a development site as well as retaining the existing biodiversity features they provide.
What are the benefits of early engagement to the developer?
By engaging with the public and relevant stakeholders, developers can understand from an early stage what the opportunities are to not only retain, but also enhance biodiversity in a way that contributes to local nature conservation and community objectives and makes the public feel that their opinion is valued. With biodiversity net gain soon to be mandated for new development, there are clear opportunities for developers to not only deliver on those requirements, but to also create a more positive image by engaging with and educating the public on how they intend to create places to live and deliver housing requirements, whilst enhancing biodiversity for future generations.
Creating a future where we live in balance with and connected to nature.