The Solent coastline spans over 254 kilometers. A tourist destination of choice for its natural beauty and a growing area with 64,000 new homes planned by 2034, the region is also a site of worldwide importance for wildlife. Over 125,000 birds, including endangered species, overwinter in three Special Protection Areas (SPAs) along the coast.
In the early 2000 a concern was raised that the human recreational disturbance on bird activity was increasing, jeopardising the overwintering species’ survival. Further concern was expressed that the planned increase in housing would make the situation worse. Those concerns were confirmed by a 2012 study and a 2013 advice from Natural England. This incentivised the creation of a strategic partnership with the aim of mitigating the impacts of recreational activities on birds, thus ensuring the ongoing protection of the Solent habitat while allowing sustainable housing developments.
The Bird Aware Solent Partnership
The project is implemented through the Solent Recreation Mitigation Partnership, commercially branded as Bird Aware Solent and made up by:
- Natural England
- The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds
- Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust
- Chichester Harbour Conservancy
- New Forest National Park Authority
- South Downs National Park Authority
- Hampshire County Council
- 13 Borough and District Councils :
- Chichester District Council
- East Hampshire District Council
- Eastleigh Borough Council
- Fareham Borough Council
- Gosport Borough Council
- Havant Borough Council
- Isle of Wight Council
- New Forest District Council
- Portsmouth City Council
- Southampton City Council
- Test Valley Borough Council
- Winchester City Council Page
The political governance of the Partnership is provided by the Partnership for South Hampshire (PfSH), complemented by those authorities that don’t adhere to PfSH
Who made it possible?
Other bodies had a central role in the inception of the Partnership:
- The Solent Forum - an independent coastal partnership, established in 1992 to develop a greater understanding among the local and harbour authorities, user groups, marine businesses and agencies involved in planning and management of the Solent. It initiated the Solent Disturbance and Mitigation Project in response to concerns over the impact of recreational pressure on birds within protected areas in the Solent. The project allowed to substantiate the concerns about recreational activities.
- Natural England - a public body, advising the government on the natural environment in England. It reviewed and validated the evidence provided by the Solent Disturbance and Mitigation Project and issued formal advice that prepared the ground for the Partnership, of which Natural Englaid is an active member. It also advises LPAs on any supplementary mitigation that might be required for specific developments.
- Footprint Ecology - consultants, made the Solent Disturbance and Mitigation Project (Phase II) fieldwork that confirmed the risks related to bird disturbance, and devised a package of mitigation measures as part of Phase III, that formed the kernel of the new strategy (Rangers, SANGs). It also realised the study on Alver Valley SANG.
- Walk Unlimited, a social enterprise specialised in walking and access projects. They conducted a survey on dog walking in 2016.
- Access and Countryside Management Ltd, a consultancy. It developed recommendations on fostering responsible dog walking following the 2016 survey.
Community stakeholders have been engaged in various phases of the process that led to the development of the strategy:
- Developers, land owners, property agents and private practice planners, as well businesses, residents, nature conservation groups and local community groups were consulted by PfSH ahead of the redaction of the long-term strategy.
- Local clubs and user groups for activities such as sailing, rowing, kite-surfing, horse-riding. They were involved in the development of codes of conduct.
The strong leadership from senior planners and long-term engagement with local politicians and stakeholders are a key to provide a strategic and durable approach to protecting the Solent ecosystem. In turn, this approach was a win-win solution that delivered coordinated and effective mitigation to bird disturbance from recreational activity, whilst simultaneously speeding up the development approval process and reducing the costs for all parties. Thanks to pooling development contributions towards a concerted strategy, the area will comply with Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017 while allowing an estimated growth of 60,000 homes in the next 15 years.
The partnership was propulsed by a research initiated by the Solent Forum, the Solent Disturbance Mitigation Project, as part of the Solent European Marine Sites scheme, created under the 1994 'Habitats Regulations’ that are now consolidated in the 2017 Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations.
The research, led by Footprint Ecology, highlighted the effect of recreational disturbance on birds, as well as the pressure derived from the increase in the number of visitors coming from the expected new residential developments (64,000 new dwelling expected by 2030).
This study was corroborated by Natural England in 2013, who issued a formal advice to the 14 LPAs in the area in March 2013, calling for mitigating measures and warning that they would otherwise have objected to any residential planning applications in the area from April 2018 on the grounds of being in breach of the Habitat Regulations.
Two further studies on the behaviour of dog walkers - one of the main factors of disturbance - were commissioned and formed evidence for the development of the strategy.
The core of the partnership’s activities are funded through pooling developer contributions under section 106. Those contributions are set on a sliding scale based upon bedroom numbers and calculated against forecast development to take into account the disparities in property values in the area. The amount raised in this way is partly invested in a fund to finance the “in perpetuity” measures for 80 years after 2034.
BirdAware Solent Strategy
The main output of the partnership is the BirdAware Solent Strategy. Preceded by an Interim strategy adopted in 2014, the current strategy, adopted in 2017, came into effect in 2018 and is to be reviewed every 5 years until 2034.
The strategy outlines a phased approach to implementing the wider work streams that are part of it. Through the enforcement of the mitigation measures connected to SPAs as per the 2017 Habitat Regulations, it establishes a budget that covers both the implementation of the strategy and its legacy measures, through a fund for “in-perpetuity” measures.
The implementation of the strategy consists in the creation of team of 5-7 coastal rangers, an ongoing activity of awareness raising through communication and education, and initiatives to encourage responsible dog-walking, and the realisation of site-specific visitor management and bird refuge projects. The strategy also decrees the creation of Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspaces (SANGs) and the enhancement of existing green in order to provide alternatives to coastal walking. Finally, the strategy also defines the governance structure of the partnership. The progress in the implementation of the strategy are exposed in a public annual report.
Assessment and monitoring
Other outcomes of the partnership are the regular Access Management Assessments - reviews of the activities of coastal users and recommendations for possible solution to accommodate their needs.
An ongoing monitoring, comprising surveys of the number of visitors, their recreational activities, and the numbers of birds is to be led every two to three years.
Finally, Bird Aware aims to become a “brand” that promotes the same strategic approach to other similar cases. A partnership with the Essex Coast Recreational disturbance Avoidance and Mitigation Partnership resulted in the creation of Bird Aware Essex Coast, an initiative that applies the Solent model in the context of the Essex Coast.
As the endeavour to make BirdAware a “brand” and the ongoing call for external partnerships demonstrates, the project has been conceived with replicability in mind.
While some of the measures that are undertaken are place-specific, most of the proposed solutions can be exportable in other context where biodiversity is threatened by human recreational activity (SANGs, rangers, communication campaign, involvement of local associations).
More importantly, the model of pooling development contributions to create a mitigation at a strategic level is a transferable model, that has both the advantages of protecting the environment more effectively and streamlining planning applications process.
The legal tool that allow that model are available across the whole UK. Special Protection Areas are established by the EU Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds, first implemented in England, Scotland and Wales by The Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994 and in Northern Ireland by the Conservation (Natural Habitats, etc.) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1995.
Similarly, the mitigation measures connected to SPAs are defined in the Conservation of Habitats and Species Regulations 2017, that applies to England and Wales with reference to the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. However, both the Conservation (Natural Habitats, &c.) Regulations 1994, reg. 54 and 56, and the The Conservation (Natural Habitats, etc.) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 1995, reg 49 and 51, provide some form of mitigation under the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1972 and the Planning Order 2001.