How NOT to survey for reptiles
One of AECOM's refugia found shredded by a grass cutting machine
Typical felt-type refugium as used by AECOM
One of the cut rides
Another destroyed refugium
This refugium was run over by the mower
In July 2015 walkers in Fineshade Wood were horrified to find that felt mats laid out to attract and survey for reptiles have been chopped to pieces.
Use of refugia
One of the standard techniques for surveying for the presence of reptiles is to lay out felt mats (known as refugia) in suitable habitat. Reptiles are attracted to the warmth that the mats provide and take cover underneath, sometimes coming out on top to bask in the sun.
A reptile survey using artificial refugia is the most frequently used and reliable method for assessing reptile presence or absence on a site. Refugia typically consist of metal sheets (corrugated tin or similar), or bitumastic roofing felt cut to approximately 0.5 metre square (for ease of transportation). They are laid out in habitats considered suitable for reptiles and, after a period of about two weeks, are checked for the presence of reptiles on or under them. Reptiles are ectothermic and require solar radiation to reach their optimum body temperature. The refugia heat up and provide reptiles with a warm surface on which to bask or shelter under.
Ecological surveyors from AECOM, who were believed to be working on behalf of Forest Holidays, had laid out many of these refugia earlier in the year and the surveyors had been seen visiting them from time to time since then. The mats were labelled to indicate their purpose and to ask members of the public not to disturb the reptiles.
However, in July as is usual practice the Forestry Commission employed a contractor to cut many of the grassy rides in Fineshade.
Soon afterwards naturalists walking in the wood were horrified to find that several of the felt mats had been chopped to pieces or run over by the tractor. There are pictures of some of the damage here. One wonders just how many reptiles using the mats were able to escape and how many were destroyed?
How could this happen?
We are always asked to believe that Forest Holidays (FH) and the Forestry Commission (FC) work hand in hand in a close partnership to achieve their aims. But we also know the discovery in 2014 of so many Adders, Slow-worms, Grass Snakes and Common Lizards was a considerable disappointment to the developer and was a major factor in the Council's rejection of the FH/FC planning application in eary 2015. So a cynic might suggest that this action was a deliberate attempt to reduce the reptile population - attract them to the refugia and then destroy the mats. But surely FH wouldn't be as blatant as that.... would they?
After all, a deliberate act such as that would certainly be a wildlife crime: Fineshade's species of reptiles are protected via part of Section 9(1) of the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981 (as amended) against intentional killing and injuring.
No, what seems much more likely, though hardly less blameworthy, was a woeful lack of competent communication.
Questions that need answering
Were surveyors on the ground required to communicate the exact position of the refugia to their boss at AECOM?
Did AECOM pass that information on to their employers at Forest Holidays?
Did FH bother to pass the information across to their contacts in the Forestry Commission Recreation dept?
Was that knowledge then passed down through the FC to make the local FC beat forester aware so that he could alert the grass cutting contractor?
That sounds like a lot of trouble, but these are protected species and to fail to take the necessary care of their refugia is total negligence.
So was this a deliberate act, incompetence or just negligence?
It is certainly possible that reptiles were killed and it also meant that the reptile survey being carried out for Forest Holidays was invalidated.
From: Colin Wilkinson, Senior Conservation Planner, RSPB Midlands Regional Office
“This is disappointing. Communications between the various parties involved clearly need to be improved.”
From: Dr Mark Avery, author and commentator. Formerly RSPB Conservation Director
"I am shocked to hear the news of the destruction of the reptile refugia at Fineshade Wood. I'll be interested to hear what the FC says about it."
From: ARG UK (Amphibian and Reptile Groups of the UK) via Twitter:
"That's very worrying. Possible fatalities? Are there animals present now in similar numbers to before?"
'Any further info on this please? Does anyone know if reptiles were harmed? Evidence often difficult due to scavaging though."
From Tom Langton, ecologist specialising in herpetofauna
Needs following up with the police, even if too late to look for casualties, it should result in a caution for those responsible.
Statement from the Forestry Commission
The following was received by email from the Forest District Office, Sherwood.
“We have now investigated the incident with the reptile refugia at Fineshade Wood. The survey was actually completed in June and the mats were in the process of being removed. Unfortunately the tractor driver tasked with mowing this area did not know the mats were there and, despite being vigilant, did not see the two mats involved, which were part of more than 150 originally laid for this reptile survey. We apologise for this genuine mistake. We have no evidence to suggest there was any impact on any reptiles or amphibians. We are not planning any further mowing and are working with our partners at Forestry (sic) Holidays to ensure that the full details of the precise location and timings of any surveys are clear.”
What effect does this have on the
Forest Commission's reputation?
While we were pleased that the Forestry Commission admitted to and apologised for the mistake, we believe that there are other issues and questions raised by their response.
The apology is from the Forestry Commission (FC) and not from Forest Holidays (FH): do they not feel responsible at all?
Why were mats left in place if the survey was finished? The point is that the mats attract reptiles.
At least three mats were involved (see pictures above) not two as claimed. It seems that the surveyors may not have checked all the mats laid for this survey to see how many have actually been damaged.
"We have no evidence to suggest there was any impact on reptiles." Has anyone looked for evidence? Absence of proof is not proof of absence.
What further surveys are being planned by FH, the full details of which they say will be made clear?
When will the results of this survey of reptiles on part of the Public Forest Estate be made public?
Reptile surveys by means of refugia are used to determine the presence of reptile species (not numbers). Since FH's 2014 survey already confirmed the presence of all four reptile species what was the purpose of this further survey?
This sorry state of affairs calls into question claims that FC/FH can work together to conserve wildlife - if they cannot carry out a simple survey properly how can they be expected to displace and mitigate for protected species as they propose to do if they build a holiday camp?
We would be pleased to publish further comments from AECOM, Forest Holidays or the Forestry Commission.
We also invite comments from Natural England, from other conservation organisations and from interested individuals.