As the UK strives to meet net zero and develop clean, affordable energy, solar farms are helping to address another mounting problem: the ecological crisis.
60% of British wildlife species monitored have declined since 2019 and 15% are facing extinction due to several factors such as pesticides and habitat loss – according to the State of Nature Report.
Well-designed solar farms can help reverse this, by directly enhancing local animal habitats and wildlife, while also providing renewable, low-cost energy.
Chris Hewett, Chief Executive of Solar Energy UK said: “Land management is a central part of the solar industry. In the UK, we now have growing evidence that wildflowers, pollinators and bird species are thriving on solar farms. Solar Energy UK are today promoting the ways in which solar can best play a role in the nature recovery agenda, as well as cutting carbon emissions”.
Solar Energy UK’s latest best practice guidance explains how project developers are responding to this ecological emergency, by developing high-quality solar farms that can help land recover from intensive farming, enable the natural environment to flourish, and support community buy-in for solar farms.
The development of large-scale ground mount solar is therefore an excellent opportunity to implement dual-use projects, with land supporting the UK’s energy self-sufficiency and nature recovery. Leftover space can also be set aside for grassland and wildflower meadows, providing ideal habitats for pollinators, insects, birds, grazing mammals, and other species of wildlife.
Dr Jonathan Scurlock, Chief Renewables Advisor at the National Farmers Union of England and Wales (NFU) stated: “The NFU strongly encourages developers of solar farms at all scales to follow best practice guidelines for multi-purpose land use – energy production, grazing of small livestock and agri-environmental measures. Building upon our previous work with the growing solar energy sector, the land for solar farms remains classified as agricultural and can revert in the longer term back to agricultural use. Solar Energy UK’s ‘Natural Capital Best Practice Guidance’ shows how solar farms can address simultaneously the climate and biodiversity crises.”
The guide goes on to outline how developers can design, construct, and operate high-quality solar farm projects which support the UK’s ecology. It covers the opportunities for ecological growth available across the project cycle, from site design to decommissioning, including a focus on pollinators, soil health, hedgerows, tree planting, and sheep grazing.
Sulwen Vaughan, SPV Director at Next Energy Capital added: “The Guide has been designed in line with the new Environment Act, to bring about the change required to address the UK ecological issues. The best practice guidance offers a good structure for the natural habitat on our UK solar sites”.
Sawmills solar farm
Sawmills solar farm is a 6.6MW project in Devon, developed by Eden Renewables, operated by Belltown Power, and owned by Foresight Solar Fund. The site was designed to promote biodiversity, including providing habitats for declining species, such as the rare cirl bunting.
Wychwood Biodiversity advised on ecological enhancements and carried out annual monitoring from 2015 to 2021. This focused on three indicator groups, including the number of species of breeding birds on site.
The results have seen overall gains in all three groups across the site. The most showed the highest botanical diversity yet recorded, while seven bird species of conservation concern were also observed, including the rare cirl bunting.
Boxted Airfield solar farm
Built in 2015 on former RAF land in Essex, this 18.8 MW project is owned by NextEnergy, who are working with Wychwood Biodiversity to achieve a significant gain in biodiversity by creating native wildlife habitats.
After running a baseline wildlife survey, a Biodiversity Management Plan was agreed. Five areas were seeded with clay tolerant wildflowers such as corncockle, cornflower, marigold, red clover, bird’s foot trefoil and yellow rattle. Two large bug hotels were built from old pallets, building rubble and natural materials. Wildflowers are left and encouraged to set seed before an annual cut. A local flock of sheep grazes the land during autumn and winter, keeping the weeds down while maintaining agricultural production.
The site is surveyed twice a year, and these have shown a rapid increase in the diversity of botany, bumblebees and butterflies on site, as well as breeding birds.
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