At this time of year, ecological consultancies are traditionally (and possibly frantically) embarking on the start of the main ecology survey season. Affectionately (and I’m pretty sure not just by me) referred to as ‘the silly season’, this period in the calendar relates to spring and summer when the highest volume of ecological survey work traditionally takes place. During this time, ecologists everywhere disappear for months (or so it seems) into the realm of the bat, amphibian, breeding bird, water vole, and reptile surveys to name but a few of the species for which the main survey season is devoted. The trade-off for this busy period was a quieter few weeks over the winter when surveyors could generally take a couple of deep, steadying breaths and pause, albeit briefly, to take stock, service their equipment and reconnect with their families/pets before starting all over again. That is not to say that surveys and ecology work, in general, has ever really come to a halt over this period; but it is fair to say that a steady slowing at least was always the norm rather than the exception. Not so anymore. This industry-wide mass mobilisation is being rapidly diluted because of the interplay between the effects of a changing climate altering the profile of the seasons and of the resource requirements aligned with the construction phase of major infrastructure projects. The shape of the resource requirements for ecology has notably changed.
The nature of the work over the winter period remains distinct in its composition from that of the remainder of the year, but its volume and associated scrambling for resources is not. For instance, we have seen weather conditions consistently remaining favourable for amphibian trapping and translocation well into November, enabling decisions to be made to allow clearance works to continue when previously they would have been postponed until the following spring. Conversely, warm winters followed by exceptionally cold spring weather have required agility in our thinking in relation to survey methods. Whilst the role of major infrastructure programs cannot be either underestimated or discounted in relation to its impact on the changing landscape of the ecological consultancy world in the short/medium term, the implications of unpredictable climatic changes play a longer-term role. These climate-driven changes necessitate pragmatism, based on sound evidence, consultation with statutory agencies, and expert knowledge of autoecology to deliver survey work as opposed to a more stoic, unwavering application of existing guidelines. In this regard, opinion pieces have proliferated in the peer reviewed literature, focussing on the merits of one method above another. The general conclusion, however, is an acceptance that one size does not in fact fit all. Instead, we need to ensure that our decisions are transparent and justified where deviations from established best practices are considered appropriate.
Dealing with the effects of unpredictable climatic changes from a methodological and assessment perspective is one thing but the question remains as to how we ensure that, in a period of uncertainty over future changes, biodiversity remains protected in the best way possible. To tackle such a question, there is ever-expanding evidence based on the responses of different facets of biodiversity resulting from climatic changes, including range shifts, large scale habitat preference changes, invasive non-native species distributional changes, and so on. This work is not actually new – and was even the subject of some of my own PhD research more years ago now than I care to recall. The knock-on effect of these changes is more recent and includes earlier and/or later mobilisation of ecological consultants, coupled with methodological adaptations, in an effort to keep pace and to ensure data collected allow for the provision of robust, defensible baseline assessments. This is fundamental now in the wake of the raft of new commitments and targets associated with addressing the biodiversity and climate crises. Whereas sound science and expert opinion inform methodological adaptation and baseline data collection, the fundamental challenge we face within the environmental sector is how to ensure that species can adapt and remain viable as populations into the future. We have a lot to do…anyone else looking back with a rueful fondness on the dim and distant memory of winter slows down.
Industry wide ecology surveys are seasonal, Temple ecologists are available all year round!