Solar farms and biodiversity

Solar farms are great places for nature.

And they are all set to become even better places in the future.

Most solar farms are on low grade agricultural fields growing mono-crops such as wheat, oilseed rape or field beans so changing to an electricity crop and allowing the rest of the field to green-up will naturally see an increase in flora and fauna. And that is without doing anything.

In fact farmers can get two crops off a solar farm, electricity and mutton, since many solar farms are now employing sheep to keep the flora cropped which helps nature conservation.

Creating a solar farm is like making a nature reserve that gets better over the 25 year life of the farm and has added benefit from the start.

Rarely does a solar farm go through planning without enhancements. The UK is committed to promote biodiversity ever since signing the Rio Convention in 1992 and the latest National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) of 2012 is an excellent guide for promoting enhancements at local levels.

The great thing about solar farms is that no land is lost, no trees are lost, no hedgerows are lost and it is reversible and sustainable. Greenfields remain greenfields. Few developments are so environment friendly.

There are now over 1,000 threatened species in the UK, and planning authorities try to keep abreast of the 39,000 invertebrate species in the UK; but often the focus is only on birds, mammals and reptiles on potential solar sites.

The point is that all sorts of wildlife move onto solar sites, from hares and hedgehogs, buzzards and butterflies, grasshoppers and beetles; other protected species such as Hazel Dormouse – all continue their ways along the hedgerows uninterrupted.

One great opportunity for biodiversity on solar farms is that buffers are established around the site, and between the array rows – this provides a large area and opportunity for the development of foraging plants for insects. 

Solar farms provide huge potential for honeybees and bees in general – of which there are 500 species – since the wildflowers that are seeded, and those that grow up in the first year, provide good nectar sources. These essential pollinators are responsible for one in three mouthfuls of food we eat.

So solar farms are putting back some of the wildflowers of the countryside to redress the balance of habitat loss that has been going on for the last few decades.

There is no problem that solar farms are built next to nature reserves as they buffer them (and keep them from development). Survey results indicate this in Kent. For important local EU protected nature reserves consideration has to be given to whether solar farms have an adverse impact, and it has now been disproved that swans, for instance, do not see solar arrays as bodies of water on which they might land.

On many solar sites gaps in hedgerows are filled, hedgerows ripped out in the 1970s are replaced, or new hedgerows planted, always with native species from a local provenance.  So solar farms fit in well with the countryside and can be suitably screened. The biodiversity of a solar farm therefore changes from species-poor to species-rich over time.

Allowances for badgers are made on solar farms so that they can continue to breed within hedgerows, and they are always given free movement across the site, their regular paths unhindered by the security fences that are raised a little at the base to allow free movement, and sometimes with the addition of badger gates.

Agricultural fields put over to solar farms start to develop more of a ‘natural habitat’ that progressively becomes more suitable for lizards, snakes and newts all of which are protected and have to be properly addressed through UK and EU regulations.

So over time the solar farm terrain is a better place for these protected species than the ploughing and direct-drilling that cuts the ground up into millions of strips 6cm apart once or twice a year. These animals can look forward to no disturbance over the next 25 years. Studies in Kent have shown that lizards and slow worms moved onto a reptile free field within six months of it being put down to panels.

Developers are always keen to get enhancements in place whether they are conditioned or not.

In summary, solar arrays:

  1. Boost biodiversity
  2. Conserves the land – always greenfield
  3. Changes agricultural fields into centres for wildlife  
  4. Solar farms become oases for wildlife
  5. Allows local flora and fauna to invade the site
  6. Brilliant places for bumble bees and honey bees
  7. Enhances the site to speed up biodiversity
  8. Allows uninterrupted access for wild animals
  9. Provide extensive buffers as wildlife corridors
  10. Provides sustainable energy without affecting birds

How it is done:

  1. Without any land lost
  2. Bird boxes
  3. Bat boxes
  4. Ledges for nesting birds
  5. Hedgehog homes
  6. Insect boxes
  7. Scrapes for insects
  8. Wildflower plantings
  9. Native species
  10. Planting new hedgerows
  11. Making green links with countryside
  12. Integrate into the countryside
  13. Allowing public access (where Footpaths)
  14. Managing and monitoring.