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In the footsteps of Romans and Monks – at Llanwern

07 May 2021:

The hardest part of writing a blog – finding a title that will draw in the audience.

NextEnergy and partners are proud to have developed and constructed a 75MW solar site called Llanwern in South Wales. I first heard of the Llanwern project in late 2017; it was expressed as a site covering many full-sized football pitches, certainly much larger than any site that NE owned to date. In fact, at the moment, it is the largest solar site in the UK, a site covering 145 hectares.

Then in March 2018 the project secured its Grid and planning rights.

The location was described as close to Newport, then I did a little more research and realised that the area was in fact part of the Gwent Levels; an area classified as a site of special scientific interest (SSSI).

It has been noted that it was in use 5000 BC, however, it was reclaimed back by the sea. A Roman General Sextus Julius Frontius, based at Caerleon, built a sea wall and reclaimed the land behind the wall. Ditches (known locally as reens) were developed so that water from the uplands could reach the sea without flooding the reclaimed land. It was in use for 350 years by the Romans. After their departure, the monks at the Goldcliff Priory took on the task to master the land. In 1530, King Henry VIII, created the Courts of Sewers and the Courts of Caldicot and Wentlooge were established. This was a formal undertaking to ensure that the land was managed properly. No financial support was given by Royalty or Government, however, it was left to the landowners and they were policed by the Courts of Sewers, in Llanwern it was the Court of Caldicot.

To gain planning permission, numerous studies that had to be undertaken, archaeological to ecological to name but a few, to satisfy an understandable number of interested parties.

The area is sometimes referred to as the living levels, as the site has reens; amphibians will have shared use. Along with invertebrates, reptiles, badgers, bats, lapwings, common cranes, rare bumble bees (the shrill carder bee), dormice, brown hares, and hedgehogs; along with others not singled out with a mention. The hedgerows and field boundaries include mature willow, oak, ash and horse chestnut.

The development team worked with specialists to ensure that nothing could or would be overlooked for its future management as a solar plant. Much research was required to gain a full understanding and appreciation of the land management requirements during its development, construction and full operation.

A Construction Environmental Management Plan (CEMP) had to be developed and approved. The plan during pre-construction, led by an ecologist to ensure that habitats, hedgerows, trees, bats, water voles, ground nesting birds and nesting birds (trees and hedges) were left unscathed.

For the next 40 years NE will be the custodians of this beautiful part of Wales, with its reed-fringed ditches, maintained in line with a 44-page Landscape and Ecology Management Plan (LEMP).

Wildlife features added in the form of bird boxes of varying sizes and entrance holes to suit different species, tree sparrow boxes, barn owl boxes, and bat boxes. Habitat piles to benefit reptiles, invertebrates and amphibians, will be constructed from arising from the hedgerows and placed in corners of fields. Bug hotels constructed from suitable materials of the site infrastructure.

This estuarine landscape, a patchwork of fields edged by reens and sluice gates to manage the flow of water, has contrasting seasons which attracts migrating birds.

A seasonal visitor is the Common Crane, and dedicated areas of habitat have set been set aside for them to continue their use of the land. Crane crossings have been added, timber planks crossings to allow cranes with chicks to move between fields easily. Water quality was to be maintained throughout construction and will be through the duration of the solar farm’s operation. It will be an interesting solar site to observe, and certainly an area worth a visit.

Members, to find out more on the biodiversity benefits of solar, please join our next Natural Capital Working Group, to RSPV click here.