Don’t be fooled by the fur: one bat can bring your entire project to a halt. And now a change in the law means that so can water voles and even snails. Has the world gone mad?

It’s December 2006 and a construction site in south London is deserted. It is supposed to be hosting Elm Court, a gleaming £9m school for children with special needs. The design is complete, the full project team has been appointed and the demolition contractor is raring to go …

but work has been suspended. The cause is a tiny, furry creature sleeping blissfully in the eaves of a building that is due to be demolished.

Because there is at least one bat on this site, all work must stop until the creature has finished hibernating. Under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act, there is a ban on disturbing a whole range of animals at various times of the year. The bad news for builders – and the good news for the animals – is that in April the act was extended to cover even more creatures, including water voles and certain types of snail and seahorse (see box, below).

And just in case you were considering ignoring the law, take note – if you get caught, you could be fined £5,000 for every animal disturbed, or even go to prison for six months. So how are we supposed to handle the threat that our furry (and feathered and scaly) friends pose to construction projects?

At Elm Court, QS Steve Crockford, senior cost consultant at Dobson White Boulcott (DWB), is unimpressed. “Some people might find them cute,” he says, “but I don’t like bats very much.” When bat droppings were found on site in December 2006, the project was frozen indefinitely. “There was nothing we could do until the bat finished hibernating, which depended on the weather getting warm enough to wake it up.”

Such delays add to project costs, of course, particularly if a main contractor has been appointed. Crockford says: “Either you keep a contractor on the project by paying them a small amount, or you tell them to go away and come back, in which case their prices will probably go up. It could add anything from a few hundred thousand to millions.” DWB decided to keep the contractor on.

It turned out there were three bats on the Elm Court site, and they finished hibernating in April 2007. A firm of ecologists called Ecosa was called in to identify the species of bat and arrange to have then translocated once they had woken up. As a result, the school was delivered four months late and cost an extra £20,000. In this case, the extra cost was small enough to be covered by the client’s contingency fund.

Bat-related crimes

Not everyone follows the rules when they find protected species on site, but the penalties are harsh for those who get caught. Between July 2004 and April 2007, the Bat Conservation Trust recorded 170 bat-related offences, 66% of which were caused by building projects. Among the perpetrators was building firm PJ Livesey, which in February 2008 pleaded guilty to disturbing a bat colony at a house near Hertford. The firm was fined £3,500 and ordered to pay an extra £2,000 towards court costs.

John McCawley is a senior cost consultant in the environmental impact assessment team at Oxfordshire firm RSK Carter Ecological Survey and Assessment Consultancy. He highlights another obstacle presented by the Countryside and Wildlife Act: when you apply for planning permission, the council may ask you for proof that there are no protected species on site. The tricky thing is that you can’t necessarily get that proof when you want it because certain animals are visible only at particular times. “If you go for planning in, say, July and the council comes back and says, ‘We think there might be newts on your site’, you’re going to be delayed by months,” says McCawley. This is because the survey time for newts is between March and June, so you would have to wait until the spring before determining whether there were any.

The best course of action

McCawley advises getting an environmental report before you go for planning permission. This will involve a check for any protected species. He says: “If your site is clear, you can include that in your planning application and avoid the need to delay the project waiting for surveys to go ahead.”

If you do find protected animals on your site, the next step is to apply for a licence from Natural England, the Countryside Council for Wales or Scottish Natural Heritage. The licence gives the ecologist and the client joint legal responsibility for the correct treatment of the creatures. McCawley says the ecologist will be able to deal with the animal, but this will depend on what type of animal it is and the time of year at which it is found.

At Elm School, bat boxes close to the new building had to be attached to nearby trees, and the bats were then trapped and placed in their new homes. In contrast, if you find water voles on a site, you might have to leave their habitat untouched, move them into a “captive breeding site” while construction work is happening, and then bring them back.

The Bat Conservation Trust has noticed that more projects are now following the right procedures. Carol Williams, bats and built environment officer at the trust, says: “People in construction know there have been problems in the past, and now there is a willingness to avoid breaking laws. We are hoping to see a reduction in animal-related crimes on sites soon.”

New animals to watch out for

On 6 April 2008, the Wildlife and Countryside Act (1981) was extended. It is now an offence to kill or disturb the following:

  • water voles
  • roman snails
  • short-snouted seahorse
  • spiny seahorse
  • angel shark

Other protected animals include:

  • adders
  • all dolphins, porpoises and whales
  • all marine turtles
  • all wild birds
  • badgers
  • bats
  • the common frog
  • common toad
  • dormice
  • grass snake
  • newts – great-crested, palmate and smooth
  • otters
  • pine martens
  • red squirrels
  • slow worms
  • smooth snake
  • wildcats
  • viviparous lizards