“Whose side are you on?”
The trickiest question I get asked is nothing to do with the actual work. It comes both from people in client organisations and environmental campaigners and always makes me uneasy so I’m going to put an answer here for future reference, or rather two answers that support each other.
My role as an ecologist is to find information, work out the implications of it and provide my results to the right people. It is not to provide arguments for or against any particular proposal, nor is it in anyone’s interest for me to do so.
For the client they need full and accurate information to support any application for planning permission or a protected species licence. Anything less carries the risk not only of failing to get permission but of legal challenges with all the associated costs and reputation damage.
From an environmental perspective an ecologist working with the developer is a benefit. Not only can I persuade them away from more damaging courses of action but where development is going ahead I can ensure maximum benefit for the environment. Without an ecologist involved some projects would cause more damage than they might, outside scrutiny is a good thing but cannot substitute for on the ground scientific data about a site.
2. It doesn’t have to be about sides.
In many cases there is no conflict between environmental protection and building. Some sites have little to no ecological value, others are already damaged and need improvements to benefit nature – developers can fund these improvements both to gain planning permission and to provide a better environment for their customers.
When a development is blocked this to can benefit everyone. Not only are important wildlife sites protected the client is freed from spending money on a project that would have cost more to meet environmental standards and have damaged their corporate reputation. A well timed move to a more suitable site can earn the goodwill of environmental campaigners and make future projects go more smoothly.
I hope this explains why the question of sides is tricky and why having an ecologist on a potential building site is a good thing, whether you want the building or not.