Smart ecology: helping change perceptions as well as practices

Jules Price | 28 Feb 2017 | Comments

Often, when we see the word ecology in a sentence, it’s nudging against other words like ‘disaster’ or ‘crisis’. In fact, the word only gained currency outside academia as the myriad consequences of global warming became known.
Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen a move away from identifying ecological impacts at the last minute and then trying to shoe-horn appropriate mitigation into the well advanced, detailed engineering design of a major infrastructure scheme, to a more iterative approach.
This requires the involvement of ecologists during the initial stages of design so that impacts can be identified and either designed out, or be mitigated more easily and economically early on.
This type of smart ecological thinking has been put into practice at major sites such as the London 2012 Olympic Park – where wetland biodiversity was a key aspect of the planning – and at Coed Darcy, where we’re transforming an oil refinery into the first ‘sustainable village’ in Wales.
New technologies can help to make the process of gathering data ‘smarter’, too.
We’ve been testing the use of unmanned aerial vehicles across a range of projects where field surveys have traditionally been used. During a project for a water company, a drone took 10 days to survey what would have taken a two-person team 40 days using traditional walkover methods. So the survey is done more quickly, the results are available sooner, and the constraints are known earlier.
This invariably saves money because it is almost always the delays caused by unexpected finds that cost a project dearly.
To this end, we’ve been pioneers in the gathering of environmental DNA (eDNA) for great crested newt surveys. We use specialised labs to analyse a water sample instead of a conventional newt survey which involves expensive, time-consuming and potentially disruptive repeat visits to a site during the breeding season.

We recently obtained the first ever project-wide licence for great crested newt mitigation on a project for Midland Mainline. In essence, this means that if great crested newts are encountered unexpectedly on the scheme, the procedures to be followed are already in place. This avoids severe delays which, on this project, could cost up to £20,000 per night! 
Such smart thinking can bring about huge practical benefits for Atkins as well as our clients; ecology is a key part of obtaining planning permission for major infrastructure.
The world of engineering and design has got considerably smarter about ecology, not least because ecologists have spent a significant amount of time pushing the message that early involvement is the key to managing constraints efficiently and avoiding delays. 
The use of smart ecology is essential to improve the speed of project delivery in a world that demands pace and efficiency.

This article originated in the Telegraph online.