Consultancies provide expertise on ecological and environmental issues to industry, government agencies and other organisations. Their services include Ecological Impact Assessments, surveys, habitat management and restoration guidance.
The increasing volume and complexity of European Legislation, together with new environmental laws and regulations in the UK, has resulted in a corresponding growth in the ecological consultancy sector.
An ecological consultant undertakes research and surveys to provide advice on ecological matters such as, how plans to use a particular area of land may affect the plant and animal species and types of habitats present. They will have gained specialist knowledge in this field, such as an appropriate first degree and often a second degree or relevant background in nature conservation as well as field experience. The work is very rewarding but can be quite demanding. Dependent on the type of work involved, completion of various tasks may be restricted due to a number of factors, such as the budget for the work, planning conditions or seasonal constraints.
Consultants must have a flexible approach to their work and may have to accept long hours. For example, survey work is sometimes carried out at night, in the case of bats and newts. A consultant must be prepared to spend periods of time working away from home and in some cases, abroad. The benefits of this are travelling to interesting sites and working outdoors, but there can also be a lot of administrative work and consultants must frequently work quickly in order to meet deadlines.
Ecological consultancies provide a range of services on a contract basis to organisations that do not employ specialist staff or have insufficient expertise. Many of the larger multidisciplinary consultancies that employ ecologists may also have staff with estate management, arboricultural, forestry and landscape design skills and experience. Some consultants have an environmental science background and will deal with issues such as contaminated land and air/water quality. The smaller, more specialised consultancies may focus in on individual species, for example, bats.
Field survey, monitoring and data collection – Consultants are often employed in routine field survey of flora and fauna, in data analysis, mapping and in monitoring of designated sites and proposed development schemes. This is most often carried out in conjunction with collation of existing data that is publicly available from record centres and other bodies. Initial site visits will typically describe the habitats present and assess the likelihood of protected species being found.
Often the methodology is the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) Phase 1 Habitat Survey, but other standard methodologies are used for follow-up surveys. Ecologists are encouraged to specialise in one or more taxonomic groups as their career progresses, as well as developing general botanical identification skills.
Impact assessment – A large proportion of consultancy work is now devoted to providing information for Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and/or Ecological Impact Assessment (EcIA).
Impact assessments are carried out for many projects, often related to the planning process. Projects may include industrial or building developments or transport schemes and consultants must produce evidence of the potential impact of proposed developments on the environment. This information is used by the developers, planning departments, conservation organisations and other stakeholders in a variety of ways, but mainly in public inquiries and when considering planning consent for work on a designated site. Sometimes the consultant employed to carry out the original assessment will also be involved in designing a programme of measures that reduce or cancel the harmful effects of new developments. This is called avoidance, mitigation or compensation. There may also be a requirement to attend planning meetings or give evidence at a public inquiry.
Provision of advice – Consultants are often called upon to give advice on a wide range of ecological issues; for instance, the type and level of survey work that could be required to meet a particular objective, nature reserve management (including the preparation of management plans), habitat creation or restoration schemes and issues relating to wildlife legislation. This advice usually takes the form of a report, but the output may also be in the form of presentations or meetings. More and more, this advice is often focused on protected species, such as bats, badgers and great crested newts. This will often result in the consultant preparing a detailed mitigation scheme.
Mitigation and translocation – Mitigation schemes usually involve trapping and relocating animals, as well as constructing new habitats for them. A specific licence must be held to carry out the work if the animal is a protected species. The consultant will be expected to take responsibility for the success of this work and make sure that all the requirements of the licence are adhered to. Habitats such as diverse grasslands may also be translocated if the conditions are suitable. This type of work involves liaison with engineers, production of method statements and supervision of contractors sometimes involving long periods of time on site.
Research – Research projects are often undertaken by consultancies for nature conservation agencies, local authorities and wildlife organisations, to investigate the success or otherwise of countryside schemes, monitor or prepare inventories of important species and habitats, or to monitor changes brought about by man-made alterations to the environment.
Business management – The more senior members of staff in consultancies generate policies, give advice, deal with legal and financial matters, engage in activities to generate new business and work closely with clients. They also supervise the work done by more junior staff, appraise their training needs and provide the relevant training required. Project management is a valuable skill as various elements such as finance and health and safety need to be incorporated into the work. Senior ecologists may become involved in public inquiries and need to be able to present information clearly and knowledgeably.
Consultancies vary in size from firms with one or a handful of staff to much larger concerns. Large engineering companies now have ecological divisions that can work with both the engineering teams in-house and on other projects. Some practitioners combine academic work with consultancy – indeed, a requirement to work as a consultant is now written into the contracts of some college and university teachers. The research institutes carry out many of their activities on a consultancy basis and NGOs, such as some of the Wildlife Trusts, may also have staff who carry out consultancy work.