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The Ecology of Road Building

One of the current major road work projects in Cornwall is the A30 dualisation. The project is extending the dual carriageway to replace the single carriage way section of the A30 from Carland Cross round-a-bout to Chiverton round-a-bout, to allow for the increased traffic pressure through the summer months and reduce traffic on local roads. In an attempt to reduce disruption during construction and maintain a network for local traffic, the new dual carriage way is being constructed largely separate to the current A30 road.

Land and Heritage has been supporting the project by providing staff who are working as Ecological Clerks of Work (ECoW). This role is vital in ensuring the protection and correct working methods to avoid harming our diverse array of wildlife.

Megan Dalton is an Assistant Ecologist at Land & Heritage, and tells us about her personal experiences working as an ECoW on this major infrastructure project.

Digital representation of what the new junctions may look like.

What is an Ecological Clerk of Work?

Professional ecologists provide advice about ecological and environmental issues during the construction phase of a development, followed by supervising the work to ensure appropriate methods are applied.

Roles include dawn nesting bird surveys through the nesting season to identify and cordon off any active bird’s nests, ensuring these birds can raise their young undisturbed; two stage removal of vegetation, to degrade the habitat value of an area to be removed/excavated, encouraging wildlife to relocate; checking trees for cavities and fissures which may be housing bats during the day, before they are felled; monitoring removal of hedges and earth banks to ensure it minimises the potential of causing injury to wildlife; catching and removing any wildlife found to a safe location out side of the zone of work.

Supervising tree removal by tree shears (photo: Megan Dalton).

So how important are Ecologists on large construction projects? Why would someone passionate about wildlife and conservation choose to work with a large construction company?

Many large projects like the A30 dualisation are funded and agreed to by the Central Government, with local councils having limited say in the outcome. Furthermore, the current process starts by compulsory purchase of land followed by ecological and environmental surveys. In other words, the ball is rolling long before wildlife is considered. The initial ecological surveys will discover the species and habitats that are “in the way” of the new road, but will not alter its path, and it is then up to the ecologists working during the construction phase to protect, relocate, and ultimately save this wildlife as we run in front of the metaphorical and literal bulldozer. It is extremely hard to watch established, mature habitats being destroyed, but by working with the contract crews we can do so in a way which causes the least impact to the animals living there. Additionally we must keep in mind the planned 15% increase in biodiversity value which will result in the project benefiting to the local ecosystem in the long term.

A rainbow appears over a work crew removing part of a conifer plantation (photo: Nic Harrison-White).

The Good Parts of the job

One aspect I have loved about this job is the translocation of reptiles from an area of heathland which is in the path of the road. Using sections of roofing felts to encourage daytime basking, we are able to quickly catch anything that is underneath the felts upon lifting them. Once the population of reptiles has been sufficiently reduced, the entire heathland will be cut into sections under the supervision of several ecologists, before the heathland itself is translocated to a new location. This provides the opportunity for the topsoil, root system and seed bank to re-establish and persist as new heathland habitat.

Juvenile adder translocated from the heathland (photo: Megan Dalton).

We have also had the fortune of working with some crews who are curious about our native wildlife and enjoy talking to us throughout the day to learn. These crews will then insist on an ecologist being present when undertaking sensitive work, rather than carrying on without. This is a good reason to build positive relationships with other workers on this job; it is not us against them, it is ecologist educating everyone and trying to spark some interest or passion, so that they are understanding when asked to deconstruct a hedge in a slow and lengthy manor rather than as fast as possible.

Grass snake rescued from a Cornish hedge during deconstruction.

I hope that in the future ecology and the environment will be considered in the first stages of planning as opposed to being an after thought which will allow us to route transport links around highly valuable habitats. But in the meantime, I will continue doing the best I can to reduce the impact, prevent harm and safeguard our wildlife on projects which would happen one way or another. This is not the side of ecology I thought I would end up involved in, but being here I now see how necessary it is that we have passionate people on the ground willing to do it.

Megan Dalton BSc

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