reptile survey

Reptile Surveys – A Brief Guide

In the UK there are 6 different species of reptile; three snakes and three lizards. These animals play an important role in proper ecosystem functioning through controlling insect and rodent population numbers. Reptiles are also a source of food for many animals including hedgehogs, badgers and birds, but unfortunately all populations in the UK are in decline to some degree. Reptiles are protected under the UK judiciary system and it is an offence to intentionally or recklessly kill or injure each of the species.  The sand lizard and smooth snake, which are very rare, are further protected and require a licence when carrying out a survey in an area with known populations of each species.

The Ecology Training UK reptile course is designed to provide you with all the information to carry out a survey. There are also field visits and a chance to handle reptiles. You can find out more HERE.

Carrying out a survey

Initial Preparation

When preparing for a survey the first thing which needs to be determined is the type of investigation you wish to carry out. There are three types: presence/absence, population numbers, and monitoring.  This guide will focus on presence/absence surveys, which as the name suggests aims to determine whether reptiles are present on the site. Once the survey type is established, permission must be obtained from the land owner or manager of the site. It is a good idea before visiting the site to carry out a desk based study of reptile populations in the local area. This may have been undertaken at the preliminary Ecological Appraisal stage. The local records centre holds records and there will also be records on resources such as MAGIC map.  Preparing a map of the site and a survey form, in which sightings can be recorded (dates, species, number, location etc.) is also essential before carrying out the survey.

Survey Procedure

Surveying for reptiles is challenging because they are highly secretive and often camouflaged, with relatively low population densities. The time of year and day are restricted when carrying out surveys, as activity levels in the winter and hot months of the summer are low, making reptiles difficult to detect. It is a good idea before carrying out a survey to familiarise yourself with the basic behavioural ecology of each of the 6 UK reptile species, as this will make finding and identifying them much easier.

Reptiles are active from March to October. May, April and September the best times of the year to spot them, and during this time lizards bask in the morning from around 8.30 – 11.00 am, then from 5.00 – 6.30 pm (depending on the weather).

There are two methods for carrying out a presence/absence survey and these are designed to work in conjunction with one another– Direct Observation and Establishing Refuges.

Direct Observation

Direct Observation is the process of searching for reptiles on site. Reptiles can be found in a wide range of habitats from grass and heather heathland to suburban wasteland, but following some general rules can increase your chance of identification. Reptiles are ectotherms, this means that they require energy from the sun to warm them up in order carry out their general activity. They bask in the mornings and evenings; identifying these ‘Basking Spots’ is key to finding reptiles on a site.

‘Basking Spots’ are generally covered in short vegetation and are close to places of refuge where reptiles can hide, such as hedges or banks. When searching for reptiles tread lightly and slowly, ideally with the sun in front of you (shadows falling on lizards can scare them away immediately), and listen out for any rustling sounds. Binoculars which are able to focus in a close range can be very useful for species identification.

Establishing Refuges

Creating artificial basking refuges is a method used to increase the chance of determining the presence of reptiles on a site. These provide suntraps so to allow the reptile to warm up, therefore need to be made from materials with good conductivity such as tin or black bitumen sheets. The recommended size of a refuge is 0.5m2; these should be placed on potential ‘Basking Spots’. The number of refuges set up will depend on the size of the site under investigation. When carrying out a presence/absence survey 5-10 refuges per hectare is considered adequate. It is often more for consultancy, and depends on the project.  Seven visits are the minimum number required to determine with reasonable confidence the presence or absence of lizards, and can also indicate the size of the population (low-high). Visits should be carried out when the weather is most conducive to spotting basking reptiles. The weather should be warm and dry with little wind, ranging in temperature from 9-18ᵒC, long periods of cold followed by warm weather are ideal. To check the refuge lift one side up vertically, wearing gloves if adders are likely present, be sure to be sure to place the refuge back in the same spot. Peek underneath and record what you see.

What To Record

Record the location of each reptile sighting on your map, the species, number of each species, and the amount of time spent searching. You also need to record the life stage (adult/juvenile) and the sex, to establish if there is a breeding population on site. Determining absence of reptiles on a site is very difficult, the term ‘likely absence’ is therefore commonly used instead.

We run a reptile surveying course at Ecology Training UK that will teach you how to carry out a survey, as described above. You will also learn how to identify each of our reptile species and how to age and sex them. The Exeter course includes snake handling too! Take a look to find out more.

GOOD LUCK!

Preliminary Ecological Appraisal PEA Acorn Ecology

What is a Preliminary Ecological Appraisal (PEA)?

A Preliminary Ecological Appraisal, or PEA, is the initial scoping assessment of an area of land, for its potential to support protected species, based on the habitats it supports and signs of protected species.  PEA’s are required to inform what further surveys for protected species are required, as part of the planning process.  The aim of a PEA is to gather as much information about the site and the surrounding area, so that the potential impacts of the proposed development on designated sites for nature conservation, protected species and habitats can be assessed.  This is achieved through a two-part process: a desk study and a Phase 1 habitat survey.  

A desk study involves obtaining historical ecological records, so that, as an ecologist, you can assess the likelihood of protected species being present on site and the impacts of the development on ecologically important sites and habitats in the surrounding area.  By contacting the local biodiversity records centre, records can be obtained (usually no more than 10 years old) within at least 1 km radius of the site.  The data search will provide you with a list of statutory and non-statutory designated sites and a list of protected, notable and invasive species, with a 4 or 6 figure grid reference. 

JNCC Handbook What is a Preliminary Ecological Appraisal

The next step is to visit the site and conduct a Phase 1 habitat survey.  It is important that prior to visiting any site that you have permission from the land owner to be on site and you have a full risk assessment in place.  A Phase 1 habitat survey provides a ‘snapshot’ of the current conditions of the site and is a technique used by ecologists to map habitats and record species as a baseline for further survey work, in accordance with Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) guidelines ‘Handbook for Phase 1 Habitat Survey’.  These guidelines list the different habitats, which can be found in the UK and a definition for each habitat.  Ecologist can use these guidelines to effectively identify which habitats are present on site.  Once identified, the habitats need to be outlined in a map to provide a visual representation of the site. 

Phase 1 map What is a Preliminary Ecological Appraisal
JNCC PHase 1 codes What is a preliminary ecological appraisal PEA

The JNCC handbook also provides a key for each habitat type with their own colour coding, making mapping the habitats transparent and consistent.  The objective of a Phase 1 habitat survey is to also record the dominant flora and signs of protected species present on site.  The ecologist can then assess the site for its potential to support protected species.  For instance, kidney vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria) could be recorded on a calcareous semi-improved grassland which could attract breeding small blue butterflies (Cupido minimus) which are a species of principal importance.  Even though the small blue butterfly may not be recorded during the survey, the site itself has potential to support them.  Similarly, it is important to record any features, which could support protected species such as log piles or woodpecker holes in a tree.  These should be noted as a target note on the map.  Further information on what a Phase 1 habitat survey is can be found on our website.     

Blue butterfly Acorn Ecology

The final step in the process is to present your findings to the client in a report and inform them of any further survey work, recommendations and mitigation, that are required.  If the site has potential to support protected species, then further protected species surveys are required to fully establish if protected species are present and whether they will be impacted on by the proposed development.  The results of these further surveys and subsequent assessment are required to inform the planning application.  Further information on protected species ecology and survey courses can be found on our website.  

CIEEM Guidelines what is a Preliminary Ecological Appraisal PEA

A PEA is an essential scoping survey that ecologists undertake regularly and is the first step in understanding the sites nature conservation value.  Further information on the CIEEM guidelines for PEA’s can be found on their website.  Here at Ecology Training UK, all of our ecologists are experienced in carrying out PEA’s and offer introductory courses at each of our branches for anybody who wishes to learn how to carry out a PEA. You can find them, along with our full range of courses on our website.  

Acorn Ecology book

Ecology Book Reviews

As an ecologist you are going to need some reference books. But with SO MANY books out there, how do you know where to spend your money and get the most out of it?

Number one on our recommendation list is How to Become an Ecological Consultant by Sue Searle. It’s full of tips and advice on how to make it in this competitive business, with plenty of career advice too.

Free downloads

Here’s some good news – you don’t need to break the bank or have an endless book budget (although that WOULD be fantastic, wouldn’t it?!). You can get digital copies of lots of useful reference material for FREE! It includes some of the most important, such as the Bat Surveys: Good Practice Guidelines, produced by the Bat Conservation Trust, The Dormouse Conservation Handbook, The Great Crested Newt Conservation Handbook and the Phase 1 Habitat Survey Handbook, amongst others. So that’s a good start! Follow the links to download them.

ID books

Botany books are all a bit different, and most people tend to prefer one over another.  Here are some of our favourites:

Collins Pocket Guide – Wild Flowers, by Fitter, Fitter and Blamey. Very easy to use, with a good introduction to flower shape and colour. This is usually our first port of call if there’s something we don’t recognise.

The Wild Flower Key, by Francis Rose. This book offers a key at each section to help you identify the plant with beautiful illustrations. His book on Grasses, Sedges, Rushes and Ferns is also good, for when you’re ready to advance a level.

There are plenty of ID books on trees out there, but the Collins guide hasn’t failed me yet!

The Beginner’s Botany course (run in Exeter and Hampshire) can give you a good grounding in plant ID as well as training you in the best way to use your ID book. Learn the families and recognise their characteristics so you can go straight to the right section in your book, rather than flicking through all of it.

The RSPB have published a number of books. Go for one that suits your level of knowledge and tells you what you need to know. As with many of these books, as you get better, you may want to replace your basic ID book with something a bit more technical.

There are so many books on bats. There are a few very good ones. We would recommend what may seem like a simple starting point – the FSC chart. It gives you loads of information on the back and when you come to ID, it does the job and it simple to use.

A good tracks and signs book can be very useful. There’s an FSC chart, which covers most eventualities! Explore tracks and signs on our Survey Techniques for Protected Species course in Exeter.

We have a range of the FSC charts in our training room in Exeter, so you can pick them up while on a course with us.

Reference

If you think you may end up doing a significant bit of sound analysis, a worthy investment is Bat Calls by John Russ. It is in almost constant use here during the summer when the students are learning sound analysis! It’s what we recommend during our Introduction to Bat Sound Analysis course.

Amphibian and Reptile Habitat Management books are available, again, as you’ll be glad to hear, as free downloads. These are published by Amphibian and Reptile Conservation. They give information about the species you will find, and information on how to create and manage habitats to support them. For field visits to sites, have a look at our Ecology and Surveying courses for reptiles or great crested newts.

Remember, an ID book in your pocket is a great start, but unless you know how to use it, it can only help you so far. Get a helping hand from an expert ecologist on an Acorn Ecology Training Course. See our range of courses HERE.