Reptile mitigation with no fence!

This is a short article about the great efforts we and Dorset County Council (DCC) have been going to over the last year, to ensure that a major rebuild of the A338 dual carriageway in Dorset doesn't harm reptiles:

The A338 'Bournemouth Spur Road' is six miles long, and in need of a major overhaul since it began crumbling many years ago. Around 10km of the 17km of neighbouring verges are home to rare sand lizards and/or smooth snakes. Indeed, all 17km of verge are home to more common species like slow-worm.

Normally a scheme like this involves gargantuan efforts to shift the reptiles out of harms way, including miles of costly and wasteful fencing installed at great damage, thousands of roofing-felt mats to attract reptiles, and months of walkovers to catch reptiles. This time we've used a novel approach of keeping the road verge vegetation cut very low, to disperse reptiles away from the verges.

Natural England gave its blessing to this new approach, much to the surprise of many, and all eyes have been on the A338 and those involved. CGO Ecology has been reptile adviser on this project, and we've been monitoring the A338 verges regularly, at 10 different locations, from March to October 2015. Initially there was still reptile activity on the verges, but then as the vegetation was cut and sprayed repeatedly in spring, the reptiles disappeared onto neighbouring land.

Throughout the summer there were no sand lizards or smooth snakes seen on the verges, and only along the perimeter were there a few sightings of the widespread species. The approach has been so effective because road verges are narrow linear strips of habitat. Installing a reptile fence can destroy half the habitat you're trying to protect, and without a fence, the reptiles only have 10m to disperse anyway.

A key part of the justification for this exclusion-fence-free approach is the restoration of many hectares of neighbouring (contiguous) heathland to replace the narrow strip of verge habitat temporarily lost. Furthermore, once the rebuild is complete in April 2016, the verges will be tree-free, and will recover quickly to heathland, scrub and grassland. Within several years, all six reptile species (as well as birds, insects, etc) will quickly recolonise.

There is already talk of the A338 being a pilot for applying this novel and progressive approach to roads nationally. But for many it is still a tricky move. The Habitats Regulations protect reptile habitat as well as the animals themselves, and opinions vary on whether temporarily-evacuated habitat is still protected. For us, however, it is a welcome outbreak of pragmatism.