Solar farms can provide havens for wildlife under threat

The National Farmer’s Union (NFU) welcomes the evidence, stating that solar farms can enable farmers and growers to share the land with nature while diversifying income.

The results of a national survey of wildlife on solar farms suggests they are home to many declining species, particularly on farms specifically managed for conservation. Linnets, a bird on the UK’s red list of conservation concern, were found across more than half of the 37 solar farms surveyed. Yellowhammers and skylarks, which have the same status, were also found on around half of the sites.

The report, ‘Solar Habitat: Ecological trends on solar farms in the UK’, produced by Solar Energy UK, also found that insects living around ground-mounted photovoltaic panels could benefit neighbouring agriculture by enhancing the number of available pollinators.

The report, produced in conjunction with Lancaster University was led by PhD student Hollie Blaydes. She said, “It is clear that solar farms can be wildlife havens. About half of solar farms are managed with conservation specifically in mind, such as limiting grazing to only certain times of the year and reducing herbicide use. Solar parks are often located in species-poor agricultural landscapes and if deployed and managed appropriately could support and enhance declining groups such as pollinators. It’s on these where wildlife can really thrive and benefit from the habitats created. These findings and the net-gain regime could help tilt the industry further towards improving biodiversity.”

Dr Alona Armstrong, Senior Lecturer in Energy and Environmental Sciences at Lancaster University, emphasised that the proliferation of solar parks needed to be “done well and in the right place”, otherwise it could represent a risk to biodiversity. She said, “Disturbance during construction needs to be minimised. For example, avoiding grading, effectively bulldozing and (re)moving the top layer of the soil. If managing the site as a wildflower meadow, strip mowing in front of the panels rather than the whole site, and cutting hedges every two years rather than every year can have positive outcomes for biodiversity. Selecting the right place is also pivotal. Solar parks can lead to net environmental benefits. For example, taking a degraded intensively managed piece of agricultural land out of production and actively managing it for biodiversity. [Evidence] demonstrates that the enclosure and minimal disturbance on solar farms does indeed create high-quality habitats and refuges for wildlife of all kinds.”

However, not all solar arrays fall into this category – a proposed site in the Gwent Levels has provoked a stern response from Mike Webb of the Gwent Wildlife Trust. He told the BBC earlier this year, "Unfortunately this fragile and complex wetland ecosystem is just not suitable. We're not 'nimbies', or anti-solar farms - it's just right idea, wrong place, I'm afraid."

The Solar Energy UK report was welcomed by Dr Jonathan Scurlock, NFU Chief Adviser on Renewable Energy and Climate Change. He said, “The NFU was involved in developing guidance on biodiversity management for the first solar farms in 2013. Ten years on, it is gratifying that evidence from long-term monitoring demonstrates that the enclosure and minimal disturbance on solar farms does indeed create high-quality habitats and refuges for wildlife of all kinds. Solar farms can be a great way for our farmer and grower members to share the land with nature, while still receiving an income – in this case, from energy production.”

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