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Why civil engineers should tap into their inner David Attenborough

03 March 2022

Protecting endangered species has environmental benefits, but also can make a difference to your project's bottom line, explains Philippa Jefferis.

Why civil engineers should tap into their inner David Attenborough
The Grizzled Skipper (pictured) is down to just a handful of sightings in the UK as its habitat has been hugely impacted by human activity.

Perhaps it’s because I’ve been asked 'aren’t you too small to be an engineer?' that I have a personal affinity with protecting those smaller than us.

Those who may not be seen at first glance, but are crucial members of our world have been overlooked, leading to their numbers dwindling.

I’m not talking about engineers who struggle to find small enough PPE. I'm referring to the protected species of the UK.

Protecting living conditions of those smaller than us

While working on a project close to the river Medway in Kent, I came to learn about the Tentacled Lagoon Worm.

This 5mm-long worm, with eight little tentacles at one end, enjoy brackish water – not quite full sea salt, but not fresh water either.

It may be considered a fussy little creature, but one that is classed as a nationally scarce marine animal and is protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act.

You've likely worked with colleagues who are particularly fussy about how their tea is made, but that doesn’t mean they don’t get to have a desk in the office. The same can be said for these worms, who deserve to have their level of salty water protected.

This is true for other species too.

I’d be surprised if an engineer hadn't heard of the Great Crested Newt, and what the finding of such a creature can do to the cost and progress of your project. Still, it doesn't meant the little fellows don't deserve a home.

Great Crested Newt.
Great Crested Newt.

Environmental advisors can save species... and your budget

The main provision for the protection of species in Great Britain is Part I of the Wildlife and Countryside Act from 1981.

I'm no expert in this field, but in keeping with attribute nine of being a professional member of the ICE, I acknowledged the limit of my understanding and sought support and guidance.

I found this support in my valued environmental advisor colleagues, asking them if they knew of any other less known species. Thus began my aim for 2022: to broaden my knowledge and understanding of environmental challenges.

I can't stress this enough: the sooner you engage an environmental advisor (or similar) in your project, the less of a headache it will be.

As with most things in engineering projects, the earlier you think about them, the less expensive they're likely to be.

Educating myself and others

In my pursuit to learn more, I commandeered the Kent and East Sussex annual general meeting (AGM) and challenged people to vote on the cutest kitten.

This had a purpose.

It called attention to the fact that it’s easy to engage and protect something adorable, but a tentacled worm is perhaps harder to get excited about, especially if it’s going to add time and cost to your project and potentially upset your client.

Further down the line, I learned about the Grizzled Skipper: a spring butterfly of southern chalk downland and other sparsely vegetated habitats.

Sadly, it’s down to just a handful of sightings in the UK as its habitat has been hugely impacted by human activity.

Similarly, the Roman Snails are the largest terrestrial land snails in north-west Europe. In the UK, they have a limited distribution and are mainly found in southern England.

The snails require calcareous soils as they need to consume calcium carbonate to form their shell. Hence why on a project that would stabilise the chalk face of a cutting, we'd need to arrange rope access to go and relocate these calcium-chomping chums.

Garden snail (left) vs Roman snail (right).
Garden snail (left) vs Roman snail (right).

A civil engineer is a friend to all

If you have a species you feel needs some more love and attention, please let me know.

It can often be quite challenging, especially when you've spent lots of time designing and preparing, only to find your plans disrupted or made more expensive by some little creature, that potentially you can’t even see!

If we're to live up to the definition of civil engineering, 'the art of working with the great sources of power in nature for the use and benefit of society'(revised from Thomas Tredgold in the 1828 charter), then we need to channel our inner David Attenborough and consider all of nature.

I like to think that those who attended the AGM agreed, and noticed that after the event, the discussion returned to the core reason we need the ICE and the events organised by our branch committees: it's a chance to learn and challenge each other to be better engineers.

Maybe an addition to the charter is needed, a quote from a wise (fictional) character who once said:

a civil engineer is a friend to all, be it plant or fish or tiny mole!

You may have heard of him, it was Russell from Disney’s UP!

  • Philippa Jefferis, Design Delivery Manager, Bam Nuttall