Planting with wildlife in mind: Designing and planning a project
Flora locale (UK)
6 December 1999 (updated May 2005)

The Technical note may be downloaded and distributed electronically or by simple photocopies but may not be published or sold for commercial gain. To seek permission to publish this note, or extracts from it (electronically or otherwise) please contact info@floralocale.org  Our updated guidance is published as Go Native! Planting for biodiversity. Guidelines for planting projects in the countryside
Habitat creation should never be used as an excuse to destroy an existing well-established native plant community of high nature conservation value.

The keys to success in any "habitat creation" scheme are: 

  •  through good advanced planning
  • ensuring that all the stakeholders or project partners are on board
  •  knowledge of the site conditions and the plants that will grow best there
  •  keeping to timetables for ground preparation and planting adequate supervision of contractors (if any are involved)
  • ensuring that planting material is of appropriate species sourced from an appropriate location  
  • using good quality planting material (e.g. seed is viable and likely to germinate) tight specifications and contracts for works that you will not be undertaking yourself
  • appropriate after care and site management, especially in the initial years after establishment
  • assurance that someone will have responsibility for looking after and monitoring the site after it has been established.

This guidance note doesn't aim to be comprehensive. Several more through analyses of project planning and design approaches for habitat creation are available. Flora locale particularly recommends the following affordable publications: 

  • Habitat Creation and Repair. Oliver Gilbert and Penny Anderson
    (pub. Oxford University Press, 1998, ISBN 0 19 8549660).
  • Cost Effective Landscape: Learning from Nature. Landscape Design and Management Policy. A Roads, Bridges and Traffic in the Countryside Initiative. (pub. The Scottish Office. February 1998. ISBN 0 7480 5863 X.) 
  • Wildflowers Work. A Technical guide to creating and managing wildflower landscapes.
    Su Lickorish, Grant Luscombe, Richard Scott.
    (Published by Landlife. ISBN 0 9523472 1 0. £17.50. Also available as a pdf file on the National Wildflower Centre Website).
  • British Plant Communities in Natural Associations. (Christopher Betts, 1997); contact Christopher Betts for details.
  • Developing naturally: A handbook for incorporating the natural environment into planning and development. Mike Oxford (2000) (now out of print)
  • Creative conservation guidelines and principles. Landlife and the Urban Wildlife Partnership (2000) Tel: 0151 737 1819
1. The project plan
So, you are going ahead with a scheme that will use native plants? Then the next step is to design and carefully plan the project. Here is a simple guide of the tasks that may be involved:

Project plan

For large projects, a process of consultation and continuous review will be desirable.

2. The expert team
Project planning and execution may involve a range of professionals working for different organisations in the public and private sector. Ecological restoration projects on contaminated land (including former landfill sites) are particularly difficult and complex and should not be undertaken until the site is deemed safe and appropriately capped for the works that are planned. This may involve the importation and correct placement of suitable capping material to an adequate depth (to bury any contamination), as well as installation of emission control systems for gas (where necessary) and possibly groundwater and gas monitoring systems as well. The project team might include an ecologist with expertise in native plant communities and ecological restoration, a landscape designer, an engineer with waste management expertise and a specialist landscape contractor (with expertise in establishing native plants).

3. Site audit and assessment

  • An audit and assessment of the site prior to designing a project is essential to identify:
  • whether a scheme that involves ground disturbance and planting is (a) desirable and (b) feasible, and if the answer to both is yes, what type of approach is appropriate
  • ground conditions, site constraints and problems
  • the type of vegetation that is local to the area and the range of native plants that will be appropriate for establishment on site
  • how important it might be to source native plants locally
  • the potential role and function of the site in relation to local people (e.g. for informal recreation or education). 


3.1 Ecological and landscape context of the site

The proposals for a project must take into account the context of the site. Considerations include:

  • location (town/countryside/biogeographic region or natural area)   
  • proximity of natural/near-natural vegetation.

Country-wide landscape and biogeographical character maps can usefully assist the initial assessment of ecological and landscape context. Search for "Biogeographic Region Maps" in Flora locale's online library for details of character maps for your country.

The Ecological Site Classification System provides guidance on site and species selection for woodland establishment.

3.2 Current state of the site, and its history

Principal considerations requiring investigation include: 

  • existing vegetation and wildlife   
  • contamination (e.g. former industrial sites)   
  • soil/water characteristics including presence of residual nutrients (e.g. from arable agriculture)   
  • other ground conditions
  • current use by people and their likely attitudes to any change that might take place on the site.

3.3 Constraints and potential

Current and future constraints that will affect the range of options that are feasible and possible for the site must be identified. In particular:

  • high nature conservation or archaeological value
  • management constraints
  • constraints related to any predicted future use
  • physical site constraints (e.g. wetness, soil, contamination)
  • public attitudes
  • available budget! 

Current nature conservation value

The nature conservation value of the site should become apparent once the audit has been completed, and for complex sites which are already vegetated, this audit should be undertaken by a professional ecologist. Statutory or non-statutory designations (e.g. local Wildlife Site or Site of Special Scientific Interest) may apply. Details will be held by the local planning authority.

Failure to identify constraints when a scheme is put forward as part of a planning application is likely to incur significant delays and costs and may attract objections from local people and wildlife groups, and likely to result in refusal of the application. As a rule of thumb: habitat creation should not be at the expense of existing habitats of wildlife value.

Case study of poor practice

The following is a real example where a badly thought out scheme, in the guise of habitat creation, would have resulted in the destruction of an important wildlife area.
A site of local wildlife importance consisting of reedbed, rough grassland, scrub and fen was recently subject to a planning application. The applicants wanted to dig a fishing lake and re-contour the adjacent land with the spoil. In places where the existing vegetation would be destroyed by the piling up of spoil, a small open area for wildlife would be created and trees were to be planted (of unspecified species and varieties).
The landscaping scheme was promoted by the site owners and their landscape adviser as a fishing lake and nature reserve. They claimed their proposal would improve the land for wildlife and amenity, as it hadn't been managed and looked untidy.
The intrinsic value of the site was not recognised in the scheme design. In fact the application area was a Wildlife Site of County Importance. It was also almost identical in its characteristics to an adjacent large wetland Site of Special Scientific Interest and held populations of scarce wetland breeding birds. Local wildlife groups and the general public complained that the scheme would destroy an area which was already good for wildlife, while the landscape adviser retained by the site owners adopted an opposing view in an attempt to promote the scheme.
The planning application was refused. The cost to the owners would have been thousands of pounds in professional fees plus the cost of the planning application fee.

Future management constraints

There will be no point in designing an elaborate scheme if the wherewithal to maintain it is not going to be there. Evidence has already shown that many habitat schemes fail because no one carries out the necessary management during the important years following vegetation establishment. Often this is because the site managers are not sufficiently knowledgeable about native plants and wildlife habitats. If the area is to be turned over to a public authority, that authority will need to be consulted to ensure that it has the capability and desire to carry out the
appropriate management prescription.

Physical constraints

The presence of very fertile topsoil can be a constraint that may affect the success of wildflowers and grasses that are established. This is specifically mentioned because it is a common practice on bare ground sites for the site engineer, under instruction from a landscape professional or local authority planning officer, to import topsoil, when this activity is often unnecessary. Fertile conditions favour the aggressive growth of tall weeds such as Stinging Nettle or docks and
undesirable grasses, such as Perennial Rye Grass, a species typical of the improved green porridge that dominates agricultural grassland. Wildflowers like stress. If capping is to be undertaken (e.g. on former contaminated land), the emphasis should be on using subsoil, with only a very thin covering of topsoil (30mm at most) that will be incorporated into the upper soil horizon with discing and seedbed preparation. However, noxious weeds are often imported with topsoil and are another reason why this practice should be avoided. Top soiling of new or disturbed road verges is also
unnecessary in the majority of circumstances.
4. Identification of objectives

The scheme objectives must properly take into account the results of the audit and assessment.

The objectives should be:
  • clear
  • understandable to non-specialists
  • appropriate to the site and its context
  • acceptable to the client and constituency
  • take into account future use and management of the site, and the resources that are expected to be available for the latter.
Biodiversity objectives for all large-scale schemes should cross-reference to the local Biodiversity Action Plan (some are still under preparation).
Objectives will inevitably constrained by the financial resources available, so the project leader must, at this stage have a reasonable idea of the costs of various landscaping options. Planting material (a highly variable cost) can be expensive, depending on the quantities and types of plants selected, and where the plants are obtained from. These costs may be substantially reduced by involving local people in the propagation of planting material, by using low seeding and planting rates and by obtaining planting material (e.g. for ponds) from places where wild plants have been dug out in the course of maintenance work. Equally, the use of volunteer groups in the community for carrying out planting can also be considered.

5. Plans

Plans should be drawn at sufficiently large scale to show what is being proposed for the site overall, and for individual areas of the site.

Plans should show:

  • the vegetation and habitat objectives are for each area (e.g. broadleaved woodland, scrub, wildflower grassland) and any other permanent features that will be established (e.g. paths for public access) or that already exist and that will be incorporated into the scheme
  • the proposed planting plan for each area (each part of the plan should eventually be referenced with a detailed specification for site preparation and planting)
  • a preliminary indication of management activities needed in the first five years of establishment (a management specification); this should indicate the management treatments that are proposed for each individual area (bearing in mind that vegetation growth in the initial establishment period may be unpredictable and the specification may need to be adapted in the early years).
Where appropriate, the plan should also show vegetation contours.
Plans should also show any known significant drainage features, overhead cables, and pipelines that might affect the design of the scheme and the undertaking of site preparation works.
For projects that are being undertaken with public funds, plans and other information will be required in certain standard formats.

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6. Seeking agreement or approval

Nearly all landscape scale projects will require a consultation period while the plans are considered and agreed. The length of this period will vary, but might affect anticipated planting schedules, and this constraint will need to be taken into account. Consultees might include:

  • the client
  • the grant-giver (through the grant approval process) the general public (e.g. a local community)
  • a committee of a local authority
  • professionals within different divisions of a public authority or other organisation
  • a regulatory body such as the Environment Agency (e.g. if dealing with contaminated land).
Some operations, including certain engineering works associated with landscaping (such as the creation of banks or excavation of ponds and lakes) will require planning permission. Consultation with the public, with planning officers and other interested parties beforehand will ensure that any problems are ironed out before the application is formally submitted. Other statutory requirements associated with the project will need to be identified at an early stage.

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7. Project schedule
The schedule may be dictated by factors controlled by a third party, such as conditions of a grant which require scheme completion by a particular date, or a planning condition which must be met within a specified time.

Ideally, the schedule should be drawn up to take into account

  • the timing of site preparation and planting: which should be undertaken at the most appropriate time, when vegetation establishment has the most chance of success
  • the availability of planting material. 
As a rule of thumb, planting tends to be far more successful if undertaken in the autumn.

7.1 Timing of works

Unfortunately, rather too many schemes are undertaken at an inappropriate time of year. These have a large chance of failure, with inevitable financial consequences. Public authorities are largely to blame for many such failures, due to their inflexible funding conditions, which put pressure on contractors to carry out works at inappropriate times.

7.2 Availability of planting material

The majority of schemes require planting material at short notice. If wildflower seed, or trees, of local native-origin or native provenance are required, these are unlikely to be available. Specific seed collections, and propagation, may be needed and this could take between one and three years, depending on what is required in terms of species and quantity of planting material.

Contract collection of seed is strongly encouraged by Flora locale, but this approach requires a radical change of approach in the usual procurement processes of large engineering firms and government departments. The Scottish Executive (Highways Directorate) and the Environment Agency are already addressing this issue through the procurement process, but their experience needs to be built upon and expanded into other organisations, especially among local authorities.

8. Specifications and estimates

By now, the project manager should have a ball park idea of the project costs (which would have been needed when determining project objectives).
Specifications for the planting material need to be drawn up and detailed costs for works, plants, seed and materials must be obtained.

8.1 Selection of planting material

Key points are:

  • selection of appropriate species
  • appropriate sourcing.

Plant species should be selected that will:

  •  grow on the site
  • meet the objectives of the project.

Guidance on selecting appropriate species to plant is also available from a number of publications:

  • Planting mixes based on the National Vegetation Classification system. (Authors: Joanna Francis & Graham Dixie, 1996. Published by H V Horticulture Ltd, The Street, Sutton Waldron, Blandford Forum Dorset DT11 8NZ)
  • Creating New Native woodlands. (Forestry Authority & Forestry Commission Bulletin 112. Authors: John Rodwell & Gordon Patterson. 9.95. ISBN 0 11 710320 9. Available from the Stationery Office.)   
  • British Plant Communities in Natural Associations. (Christopher Betts, 1997);
In addition, The Ecological Site Classification System developed by the Forestry Commission provides useful locational-and site-based guidance for woodland establishment.

Other sources of advice:
  • brochures and information produced by the major suppliers of native wild flowers (see Suppliers of Native Flora)
  • habitat handbooks published by Natural England (formerly English Nature) and available via www.naturalengland.org.uk 
  • habitat handbooks published by the RSPB (e.g. Wet Grasslands, Habitat Creation for the Minerals Industry,
  • Practical Guide to the Management and Restoration of Lowland Heathland). Contact RSPB for details

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8.2 Costs

A variable already identified is the cost of planting material. This cost variable can be reduced in a number of ways:

  • by reducing the quantity of plants (e.g. use a low wildflower seed rate just to pump prime wildflower grassland establishment, or reduce the number of trees that will be planted)
  • where trees and shrubs are to be planted: specify the use of young transplants or whips rather than large trees (the former usually have a better survival rate in any case). Using small plants also does away with the need for tree stakes (which can be just as expensive as the tree itself). Small trees can also be planted in grassland, or in bare ground that has been seeded with grass. This can be left uncut during the establishment phase. This provides additional protection from vandalism in urban areas, and also provides an extra habitat for small mammals until the trees grow up and shade out the grass. Overall, this approach should involve less establishment and maintenance costs.
A common practice in planting for amenity and landscape purposes is, to use large quantities of plants (especially for tree planting) in the expectation of (a) there will be a quicker visual result, (b) expectation of planting failure. The fix it quick approach is often not conducive to having an ecological approach to scheme design and establishment, and can vastly and unnecessarily increase the cost of a scheme.
In an attempt to reduce the degree of planting failure, the now defunct National Urban Forestry Unit developed a new type of planting performance contract. This requires the contractor to guaranteed specified survival and growth rate targets for trees, rather than detailed activities at the planting stage. Achievement of targets triggers a payment at the end of each of the three maintenance years. This approach, which promotes a greater initial survival rate and less replacement costs when trees fail, should also incur cost savings.
Guidance on current costs for specific work in the landscape and agricultural contracting sector are available in the John Nix Pocketbook of Agricultural Contractors Rates and in Spons Handbook of Landscaping Works (both publications are updated on a regular basis).

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9. Contracts
Elements of specifications developed for the landscape and horticultural industry may be used, but contracting practice for ecological restoration projects is currently being developed by a number of organisations. Further details will be provided when available.
Flora locale gratefully acknowledges financial support provided by English Nature, the World Wide Fund for Nature and TRANSCO which enabled the production of this document.


Page last modified on Wednesday 11 of July, 2012 16:37:16 BST