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      Creating Nature Rich Solar Sites

      With global agreement on the urgency of the climate crisis and time slipping away to reach our targets of a net zero power supply by 2035 and a net zero economy by 2050, the energy transition has never been more pressing. Solar farms have an important role to play in this transition.

      06 Mar 2024 4 Minute read

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      It is crucial that new solar developments avoid impacting on existing biodiversity value. Most are on agricultural land of relatively low ecological value, and with good design and implementation applied at scale, these can contribute to biodiversity recovery.

      Biodiversity Net Gain has just become mandatory in England. Here, every development must demonstrate a 10% gain in habitat extent and/or quality over the baseline. This is the minimum standard, and we have seen that it is quite possible for solar sites to generate far more than this where the original land use is ecologically poor, and where good advice is applied. For landowners, going beyond the minimum need not be more expensive; and could even generate income and support surrounding farming. For example, providing species-rich grasslands attracts pollinating insects and crop pest predators. Meanwhile, these habitats support other biodiversity; small mammals, nesting birds, butterflies and so on.

      The RSPB has worked with the field solar sector for several years and is now in partnership with the solar developer Lightrock Power, which has committed to going above and beyond the legal minimum requirements on its developments to support and enhance nature. We have provided advice on over 500ha of proposed solar development land since the partnership started in 2021.

      We advise on their sites at the pre-planning application stage, focussing on avoiding impact on existing ecological features, and on enhancements tailored to those priority species in need of help. This advice helps to deliver enhanced biodiversity net gain, and with aftercare plans, ensures that they continue to be well-managed for nature into the future.

      Image of RSPB

      As an example, RSPB worked with Lightrock at Paytherden Solar Farm in Devon, which has just received planning permission and is expected to achieve a 22% biodiversity net gain. The 70ha site is arable and improved grass leys.

      However, in future the site will feature:

      • Wildflower meadows and tussocky grasslands for butterflies, bees and small mammals, kestrels and barn owls;

      • New orchard plantings;

      • New native species hedgerows with hedgerow trees that help screen, with buffer strips of tussocky herbaceous and shrubby growth for different bird species, foraging bats;
      • Enhanced field margins, with tussocky grassland, pollinator plants and wintebird food.

      We know how to create nature-rich solar sites. We need governments to implement policies that will ensure all solar developments deliver benefits for biodiversity at scale – particularly a strategic and spatial approach to energy planning that puts nature’s recovery at its heart. Including biodiversity factors in the renewables auction scheme, Contracts for Difference, would also provide financial incentive for best practice.

      We advise on their sites at the pre-planning application stage, focusing on avoiding impact on existing ecological features, and on enhancements tailored to those priority species in need of help
      Image of Nigel Symes

      Written by guest writer Nigel Symes Head of business advice at the The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds

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