Builders versus birds?

A recent headline in the Daily Mirror from the 27th March 2019 read ‘Disgraceful battle of builders versus birds’ with the article referring to public concern over the use of nets to cover trees and hedgerows to deter nesting birds on construction sites. Articles critical of this practice were widespread in newspapers and online media at the end of March and beginning of April.

The most sensationalist articles were found in the tabloid press with a common line being that ‘greedy’ house builders were carrying out this practice in order to maximise their profits and circumvent wildlife legislation. Celebrities including Chris Packham and Stephen Fry took to social media and a petition to parliament ‘Make netting hedgerows to prevent birds from nesting a criminal offence’ received more than 300,000 signatures by mid-April. This all served to raise the profile of the issue.

What is the truth behind the use of netting and what are the lessons learnt for developers and professional ecologists?

The background to netting is the perceived need to prevent birds nesting in vegetation that has been earmarked for removal as part of a construction project. The logic is that netting can be installed prior to the beginning of the nesting season (generally around the start of March) to prevent costly delays due to potential breeding birds when vegetation comes to be removed later. The active nests of all species of birds are protected by law.

It is interesting to assess the use of netting by reference to the principles of sustainable development: the need for a balance between environmental, social and economic factors. Housing development and energy infrastructure projects, for example, have clear social benefits and delays could cause significant costs that may be borne by the house purchaser and tax payer as well as affecting the developer’s bottom line.

On the other hand, there is anecdotal evidence of poor practice in the use of netting. Newspaper articles refer to developers using netting to cover trees before planning permission has been obtained and the Cumbria Wildlife Trust report a site in Ulverston where hedgerow netting has been left in place for more than two years. There are also obvious risks that poorly installed netting could lead to wildlife becoming trapped and contribute to the loss of wildlife habitat.

These examples of poor practice highlight the need for a construction industry endorsed code of practice for the use of netting. A statement issued jointly by the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM) and the RSPB provides common sense recommendations which could form the basis of such a code of practice (https://cieem.net/cieem-and-rspb-advise-against-netting-on-hedges-and-trees/). With the lack any other formal guidance on the issue, professional ecologists and environmental clerks of work (ECoWs) working in the construction industry, should take this advice into account.

The statement advises the following:

Forward planning and early engagement of a competent ecologist by developers can often mitigate the circumstances that require netting to be used and avoid unnecessary delays to development projects. In line with planning guidelines, developers should be aiming to retain trees and hedges in the landscape design of their develop projects wherever possible. In the first instance vegetation should be removed outside the nesting bird season and should be checked by a competent ecologist. Where this is not possible, the developer should seek to compensate any removal by planting replacements.

If all other alternatives have been exhausted (i.e. under exceptional circumstances) and netting is to be used, we recommend that:

  • it is used only once planning permission has been granted;
  • it is installed with advice from a competent ecologist, ideally a CIEEM member who is bound by the Institute’s Code of Professional Conduct;
  • netting is used in such a way that it will not catch and hold birds and other wildlife;
  • all reasonable precautions are taken to ensure that no wildlife is trapped inside the netting at the time of installation (for example, hibernating hedgehogs in cavities at the base of trees); and
  • netting is checked three times a day to ensure that it has not become defective, loose or damaged and that no wildlife (such as birds, squirrels and butterflies) has become entangled.

CIEEM and the RSPB urge professional ecologists to think very carefully before recommending netting and for developers to consider the potential negative impact on wildlife and local communities in their activities.

The focus that the media attention has brought to this subject has had the positive effect of starting a debate. It is to be hoped that the debate will be an important step to a more responsible approach by the construction industry in the management of wildlife; one that goes beyond being purely driven by legislative compliance.