Implications of updated guidelines on bird surveys for onshore wind projects

12th March 2015

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Duncan East

TNEI Services considers the implications of Scottish Natural Heritage's May 2014 Ornithological survey guidelines for onshore wind projects

In May 2014 Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) published its updated guidance on ornithological survey methodology for wind energy projects. Nine months on, this article covers the most significant changes and examines the implications for developers and consultants.

SNH has emphasised the need to increase informal consultation to inform survey effort. Initial consultation minimises the chance of either under-scoping or over-scoping survey work. The potentially most significant change is a presumption of a minimum two-year survey, unless justification for a shorter period can be demonstrated. This increased survey effort allows a more robust assessment of a site’s ornithological interest, providing an accurate assessment of the possible impact to potentially vulnerable species and family groups, such as raptors and wading birds.

Consistent with standard breeding bird survey guidelines outlined by the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO), SNH now recommends four visits instead of three. Across the industry an increasing focus has been placed on species-specific surveys, and this is reflected in the guidance, which includes in an annex a list of species that known to be potentially affected by wind energy proposals.

The annex gives guidance on the minimum hours per vantage point (VP), per season for each species covered in a survey, as well as guidance on time of day and seasonal timings for undertaking the surveys and on study areas and the extent of these beyond the proposed site boundary. The increased emphasis on species-specific surveys allows for a more robust assessment of their use of the proposed development site and the surrounding area.

The previous recommendation from SNH for waders was to follow the Brown & Shepherd (1995) methodology. An adapted version of that methodology is now recognised as more robust in assessing potential impacts on waders. This gives surveyors more flexibility in undertaking wader surveys, using methods more suited to the topography of a site and allowing maximum efficiency in recording distribution and population size.

Impacts on raptors, owls, divers and woodland grouse are clearly of great interest to SNH. In some regions there is a higher chance of the need for certain species-specific surveys. In the Border counties, for example, there is more chance of a requirement for Short-eared Owl and Long-eared Owl, Goshawk, and Black Grouse surveys than other species. In many parts of the Highlands this list would be expanded to include White-tailed Eagles and Golden Eagles, Red Kites, Hen Harriers, Black-throated Divers and Red-throated Divers. Initial consultation with SNH will flag up the need for species specific surveys in known areas.

The White-tailed Eagle is worth particular mention. In some cases it could prove to be a “show stopper”, as European research has revealed species to be very susceptible to collision and the population in the UK remains at a sensitive level where every bird - especially sexually mature adults - are deemed important.

Changes are not solely related to increased survey effort. Under most circumstances it is no longer as important to survey moorland, farmland, and woodland passerines (songbirds) as these are largely unaffected by wind farm developments. These habitats should only really be surveyed if desk-based studies suggest the presence of Redwings, Fieldfares, Crested Tits, Crossbills or other Schedule 1 passerines. These changes mean that developers may no longer be required to submit assessments of passerines for wind farm developments; focusing the scope of surveys and time and resources on assessing taxa (groups) that are of greater concern.

One less significant change is to visibility requirements. The previous guidance recommended that some survey was undertaken in low cloud or mist. However, guidance now states that survey should be undertaken when visibility is greater than 2km and the collision risk area is in view. The previously recommended 200 metre extent of the study area beyond the site boundary has been extended to 500 metres. This has potential implications on the programming of survey works but will allow more robust assessment.

As our knowledge of how birds interact with wind farms after construction has increased, we are now more aware of individual species’ susceptibility as shown in the redirection of survey effort away from passerines towards other species. While there is no guidance on operational monitoring, SNH is likely to want this included as part of any consent.

What does this all mean for developers? Initial records search and informal consultation before scoping out survey effort is key, as it allows assessors and developers immediately to become aware of any potential concerns regarding a site and to devise efficient survey methods. While it is more likely that a second season of survey will be required, undertaking more targeted and efficient surveys will help reduce both costs and consenting risk.

TNEI Services is a specialist energy and environmental consultancy business.

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