Beer Quarry and Caves SAC and Habitats Regulations
Beer Quarry and Caves Special Area of Conservation (SAC) is an internationally important site for nature conservation, designated for its qualifying features, which are significant populations of hibernating greater horseshoe, lesser horseshoe and Bechstein’s bats.
Greater horseshoe bats are one of Britain’s rarest bats and are on the European Red List (Near Threatened), and are confined to South West England and South Wales. Populations are localised and fragmented. The current UK population estimate is ~12,900 individuals.
Lesser Horseshoe bats are a widespread but rare species in Europe. In Britain historical declines mean that they are now restricted to Wales, the West Midlands, and South West of England. The current UK population thought to be ~50,400 individuals.
Bechstein’s bat is one of the rarest bats in Western Europe and one of the UK’s rarest mammals. The UK population is ~21,800 and east Devon is towards the western edge of its range.
EDDC recognise the international ecological value of this site, and are committed to ensuring the ongoing maintenance of the favourable conservation status of the species at this site. The designated area of the SAC is relatively small and comprises the areas immediately surrounding the quarry and caves. However, EDDC and Natural England recognise that the bat populations present are dependent upon a much wider area outside the SAC boundary which provides essential foraging habitat and commuting routes, and supports other critical roosts for these species, such as breeding and hibernation roosts.
EDDC is a Competent Authority under the Habitats Regulations, and therefore has a duty to carry out Habitats Regulation Assessment (HRA) in order to test if a proposed plan or project could significantly harm the qualifying features of a European Site. This applies to the granting of any permissions by EDDC. Failure to adequately carry out HRA puts EDDC in breach of The Habitats Regulations.
HRA typically consists of two stages:
- Screening - An assessment of whether there is a likely significant effect (LSE) on the qualifying features of a European site in absence of mitigation measures. If it does not, then the appropriate assessment stage does not need to be completed.
- Appropriate Assessment – An assessment of whether LSEs can be mitigated, with full mitigation, avoidance and compensation details.
All details necessary in order for EDDC to carry out a HRA must be provided by the proposer.
The evidence burden for HRA is high. EDDC must be confident, beyond reasonable scientific doubt, that the screening opinion is accurate, and that any information used to support Appropriate Assessments (including suitability of mitigation/avoidance/compensation/enhancement measures) is fully complete, scientifically robust, and secured in perpetuity.
Natural England’s role and support
Natural England is a Statutory Nature Conservation Body (SNCB), and must be consulted for any proposals which reach the Appropriate Assessment stage of HRA. This means that they should approve the Appropriate Assessment in order for EDDC to grant permission. Natural England can be contacted by EDDC for advice at any stage during HRA.
In light of this, it is imperative to efficient and accurate decision making that the proposer, EDDC and Natural England have standard guidance on how HRA will be applied within areas relevant to the functioning of the Beer Quarry and Cave SAC.
The use of this document is approved by Natural England. Natural England already use this document to assess HRA requirements in East Devon when assessing applications.
The purpose of the document and the benefit to EDDC
The document is based on the latest scientific data available, with input from East Devon AONB, East Devon District Council, national and local bat experts, academics, and Natural England. The guidance follows a similar format to other Bat SAC HRA guidance in the southwest of England, such as the South Hams SAC and the North Somerset and Mendips Bat SAC. The Beer Quarry and Caves SAC Guidance is not a novel approach, as a near identical approach has been applied for over 12 years in the South Hams with success.
The guidance represents a change from ad-hoc decision making, which can take a lot of officer time and be inconsistent, to a standardised, systematic and publicly accessible approach to HRA decision making. Having a pre-agreed and publicly available guidance document which confirms how EDDC and Natural England will consider HRA requirements will decrease disagreements between parties (Natural England, EDDC, DCC and the proposer) through increased transparency. This will increase the accuracy and efficiency of decision making at all stages, which will save officer time.
In summary, this guidance document would allow EDDC to efficiently and properly carry out our HRA duties in a strategic and transparent manner.
How it works
Consultation Zones have been developed to help clarify where and when impacts, on Roosts, Foraging Habitat and Commuting Routes may have a likely significant effect on the SAC’s bat populations (Section 2). These consist of:
- Key Roosts
- Other Roosts
- Sustenance Zones
- Landscape Connectivity Zones
- Pinch Points
- Existing/Approved Mitigation Measures
These areas and features are shown in the guidance, and will be uploaded to publicly available GIS systems (Devon Environment Viewer) as well as EDDC and Natural England systems.
A flow chart is provided within the guidance document, in order to aid HRA decision making (section 3), in relation to whether or not a proposal site is within one of the consultation zones.
If an appropriate assessment is required, then the guidance provides information for applicants on what measures are likely to be required in order to properly mitigate against the likely significant effect, in order to ensure no impact on the integrity of the SAC (section 4).
Mitigation, avoidance, compensation and enhancement details are required in full at the Appropriate Assessment stage (if required). These will need to be sufficient (beyond reasonable scientific doubt, taking into account the precautionary principle) and secured in perpetuity. These measures will be enacted through legal agreements, such as Section 106 or Conservation Covenants.