No winging it – bird surveys need to be carried out by an expert

If you need planning permission, you may need a bird survey if there’s a chance your development will affect a protected species. In the UK, all wild birds are protected by law, including their eggs and nests, so a reliable survey on which to base reports and any mitigations is critical.

When is a bird survey needed?

According to Natural England, a bird survey should be carried out ahead of any developments which involve:

  • Agricultural buildings such as barns
  • Floodlighting within 50m of woodland, water, hedgerows or lines of trees connected to woodland or water
  • Mature gardens
  • Outside lighting for churches and listed buildings
  • Trees or buildings used by barn owls
  • Trees that are over 100 years old, have holes and cracks which birds might nest in, or measure more than a metre around at chest height
  • Woodland, scrub or other natural habitats.

There are two types of bird survey – nesting bird surveys and breeding bird surveys, which each have a specific time in which they can be carried out.

Nesting bird surveys need to be carried out between 1st March and 31st August, whereas breeding bird surveys have a shorter window of 15th March to 30th June, and survey activities may need to take place across that whole period.

Ideally these should be carried out as early in the planning process as possible in order to avoid delays to your planning application and to allow enough time for mitigations to be planned.

Why are bird surveys important?

As already mentioned, all UK wild birds are protected by law. As well as that, some specific species have extra protections, many bird habitats are protected, and planning authorities often have additional measures in place to protect biodiversity.

If you develop a site without taking all these protections, laws and regulations into account, you could be liable for fines of up to £5,000 or even a six-month prison sentence.

If nesting or breeding birds are discovered on site while work is taking place, any activity which might disturb the birds or cause them to abandon the nest or eggs needs to stop – potentially causing work to stop across the whole site.

It’s therefore wise to be aware of any birds which may be in the area to allow your plans to progress as quickly as possible.

It’s also important in terms of protecting biodiversity – birds can perform many of the roles needed to keep a habitat in balance, from eating pests, pollinating plants, spreading seeds and as a food source for larger predators.

Birds which breed in the UK may migrate overseas for the winter, impacting on the biodiversity of another habitat, meaning a local change could have an international impact.

What happens during a bird survey?

Bird nesting and breeding surveys should be carried out by an ecological expert with a detailed knowledge of the local bird species.

The surveyor will visit the site three or four times during the surveying season, arriving early in the morning in order to spot and record the number of birds and what species they are. In the summer, when the trees have more leaves, it can be difficult to see the birds to identify them, so surveyors also rely on their experience to recognise various birdsongs.

The results are recorded using a special form of annotation which plots on a map where the birds are spotted, what species they are and what their direction of travel is. In some cases, it may also include the age and sex of the birds.

Once the survey is completed, a specialist ecologist can give specific advice to avoid disturbing any birds that nest or breed in the area. Measures could include:

  • Installing nest boxes to encourage birds away from the development site
  • Creating alternative habitats by planting trees or creating green space
  • Delaying work so as not to impact on the breeding season
  • Installing measures to stop birds from nesting before the season starts, such as physically blocking the nesting areas, or using noise or flashing lights to discourage nesting.

An expert ecologist will also be able to compile the necessary reports needed to present your development to planning committees.

If you need advice about whether bird surveys are needed for your development, planning surveys to tie in with your development plans and the survey windows, or other aspects of biodiversity and your development, get in touch with us on 01225 459564 or email

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