Solar Farms – Biodiversity Hotspots?

Solar farms, or parks, are going to come in for a lot of flak. Photovoltaic panel prices are a third of what they were three years ago. Generous government support and ambitious targets mean that they’re sprouting all over the countryside. For developers and landowners they’re a no brainer, offering spectacular guaranteed yields. They seem to be a much better solution to meeting our renewable obligations than wind farms, too.

Everyone loves the idea of renewable energy, but the reality can be less attractive. Particularly before landscaping, solar farms can look pretty enormous and industrial. The visual impact of solar farms is a difficult thing to assess, and provokes fierce argument. A proposed site might look fine on a map if it’s not visible from any “important” or regularly used sites or footpaths. If you live in the one house directly overlooking it you might feel differently.

Many developers are motivated by purely economic interests and fail to engage local communities. Worse, they just ignore them, knowing they can get planning permission on appeal if necessary. The planning process is struggling to balance local opposition with national policy. We can take some of the heat from this process by improving the way solar farms are established and run.

Biodiversity in solar farms
Is this a biodiversity hotspot?
Mitigation requirements are generally modest, and mostly relate to hedges and hedge planting. They should be more ambitious. Sure, reinforcing, planting and letting hedges grow is helpful, but why not do more? Solar Farms actually represent a great opportunity to create biodiversity hotspots. The green deserts they replace are generally “improved grassland”, and have very limited value for biodiversity – contrary to most people’s perception. Solar farms, surprisingly, can be much more interesting.

For a start solar farms are fenced, which prevents destructive larger mammals (including humans!) getting in. This is great for flora, reptiles and ground nesting birds, for example. There’s also typically a margin between a surrounding hedge and the security fence. Why not establish a floristically enhanced margin here? Or if you were keen to encourage owls, for example, plant tussocky grass to help the vole population.

Currently, the areas between and around solar panels in most sites are either sprayed off with herbicide or cut regularly, to keep grass and weeds from obscuring the panels and scrub from getting established. Why not have grasses and wildflowers there instead? Although they will actually need less management, planners should require a management plan for these areas too. The aesthetic and environmental gains are obvious. There are also economic advantages; the cost of maintaining a carefully planned wildflower and grass mix is much lower than repeated large scale spraying or grass cutting.
These areas can also be tweaked to encourage particular wildlife. Perhaps the local community would like to encourage skylarks or a rare type of bumblebee (which is happening at one of the sites we’re involved with). The plant species can be selected and managed to suit.

The layout of solar farm panels can be helpful for biodiversity, too. Directly below them is dry, shaded and sheltered. At the base of the panel there is water runoff and more light, and in front of each row light but less water. These micro-habitats are ideal for encouraging a tremendous diversity of flora and, ergo, wildlife.

When stipulating planting schemes, planners can also be picky about provenance. It’s a great opportunity to help British suppliers of plants and seeds – like Habitat Aid! – as well as to do the right thing ecologically. Let’s learn from Ash Tree dieback. Hedge plants for solar farms shouldn’t just be native species but sourced from British stock grown in Britain. We can be even more local with wildflower and grass mixes. We can supply seed harvested from sites all over the country.

There are other potential uses for solar farms. Use orchard trees as part of any screening planting – and why not plant them with local varieties of fruit tree? I know of one site where they’re rearing queen honeybees behind the fencing, undisturbed by vandals and badgers. This stuff isn’t unreasonable or unrealistic. We are partnering two of the best solar farm developers in the country who are doing just this kind of thing:

July 2013 Newsletter

Green Roof, SomersetI’ve skipped the last three newsletters (oops) as we’ve been so busy. For a start we’ve moved into our new house; incredibly stressful, expensive and time consuming. For those thinking of building their own “grand design” – don’t do it! It will be amazing, though, once I’ve finished paying the bills. The wildflower roof looks wonderful already, for starters.

Apart from that we’ve had two major developments – see other stories – which have really warmed me.

We already know we will be responsible for putting in more than 500 acres of wildflowers across the country in 2013, and we hope to double that by the end of the year. There are a couple of big projects out there we hope to help with. That’s over 4 million square metres in thousands of sites, from patio planters to airfields. 4 million! If we can hit our target I’ll be really thrilled..

We’re signing up more and more owners of wildflower meadows to provide us with seed, giving them a commercial yield they never dreamt of seeing on their land. We’re signing up more specialist suppliers too, including the fabulous Heritage Seeds in Dorset – and we’re about to sell some Sussex seed mixes too.

Solar Parks

We’re delighted to be supplying Solar Century with native hedge plants and wildflower seed for their solar farms, and to have brokered a deal with Bumblebee Conservation, who will be advising SC on running the sites to be bee friendly. Solar farms might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but contrary to popular belief they can actually enhance biodiversity and provide brilliant and attractive habitats for some of our most treasured animals. Solar Century are going the extra mile to create those habitats and we’re delighted to be working with them on a number of exciting projects, which we hope will set a benchmark for the industry.

Read more…

Hedge Plants

If you’re thinking of buying a large number of native hedge plants this autumn we’d recommend you pre-order them. We’ve already reserved thousands of plants for customers, and anticipate demand continuing to rise sharply as buyers increasingly specify British provenance.

Bumblebee App - proBumblebee App

We’ve joint funded a FABULOUS bumblebee app with Nature Guides, which is a must buy for anyone remotely interested in bees. Bumblebee Conservation receive 25% of download fees after Apple take their chunk. The app is available NOW on iTunes:
Bumblebees of Britain & Ireland (Pro edition)
Bumblebees of Britain & Ireland (Basic edition)

Getting Out and About

Last month we ran a successful day for journalists and designers on wildflowers featuring Matthew Wilson, Ted Chapman from Kew and Pond Conservation’s Jeremy Biggs. I have a couple of days at Hampton Court with the bumblarium, following a great Gardener’s World show . Phew!

The Shock of the New: Contemporary Homes and Solar Farms

The Shock of the NewI bet that the majority of folk who stop in front of our new house* aren’t wondering how many architectural awards it might win. I bet they’re wondering why someone in planning didn’t stop it being built, because they think it’s gopping. Each to his own; we (obviously) think it looks great. There are a couple of morals to this story, however.

First off, it should strike the gawpers that they should be that someone in the planning process trying to ensure we carry on replicating 19th century houses. The Parish Council had two planning meetings to discuss the house, the first attended by one person (me) and the second by three.

Secondly, “the country” is an environment where people live. The more prosperous it is, the better those people will be able to look after it. “The country” isn’t the exclusive preserve of retirees from the suburbs or second homers, who would, typically, like to live in an Austenesque idyll (or Poundbury!). It has to move on. I’m absolutely not saying we should rip up the restrictions on development that we have in place and go all utilitarian. Our house is not only wonderful to live in but costs nothing to run. We generate more electricity than we use and heat it and cook with wood. This doesn’t mean it should automatically get planning permission. I am saying that when the CPRE objects to faster rural broadband on the basis of disfiguring “new overhead lines and broadband cabinets blotting our finest landscapes and villages” I get cross.

The explosion of solar farms that’s happening across our landscape at the moment is another case in point. The combination of government incentives and cheap photo voltaic panels means there will be thousands of acres of them put in over the next two years. There will be some appalling cases, but I hope the planning process will generally be robust enough to stop development where it is damaging or unsightly (if the gawpers get themselves along to the right meetings). In contrast to wind farms, solar farms can also offer a brilliant opportunity to create attractive and valuable new habitat.

We are working with Solar Century and – I hope – another large scale developer, who are determined to do just that. They are putting in wildflower meadow areas and new native hedges on a large scale, and going the extra mile to make sure they are establishing the right plant species and that they will be managed sensitively. We’ve hooked Solar Century up with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, who will be helping them out.

*which is, frankly, getting a bit weird. Also, when I greet gawpers with a friendly hello I feel a bit miffed when they drive off at speed.