Wildflower meadows are a quintessential part of our landscape. They used to be a familiar sight, but today only 3% remain, the rest lost to agriculture and urbanization. The loss of our meadows along with other habitats has had a devastating effect on biodiversity, birds of prey and larger mammals like deer and hare. Solar farms might seem like an unlikely solution to habitat loss – surely using even more land to create these micro power stations would add to the problem? In fact, well-sited solar farms can help reverse the decline in biodiversity by providing new habitats for native species.
Driving past a field of solar panels, it appears the ground underneath is completely covered, but in fact, as the panels are raised on frames, only 5% of the ground below is disturbed, leaving most of it free to be dedicated to increasing biodiversity. A solar array creates a unique environment. The mixture of sunny areas and shaded patches underneath the panels provides habitat opportunities for a variety of plants and wildlife. The solar panels warm the air above them, attracting insects which in turn attract birds like sparrows and house martins. If sufficient space is left between each set of panels, there is space for ground-dwelling birds like skylarks to nest. Voles and mice can live underneath the panels providing food for kestrels and owls. Once established, sites can be left alone for wildlife to flourish, as after construction there is no need for human activity apart from the occasional maintenance visit.
Amphibians, birds, reptiles and invertebrates will flourish where ponds are installed. Grassland or native wildflower meadows planted around the panels attract pollinating insects like bees whose population is in serious decline. Sheep can graze between the panels, reducing even further the need for human activity on the site to maintain the meadow. In the summer, livestock is removed to allow the meadows to flower and attract pollinators. We can create a wide range of new habitats: roosting and nesting boxes for birds, bats and small mammals; refuges for reptiles and amphibians; and log piles for snakes and insects. Hedgerows, ditches and stone walls create ‘corridors’ allowing wildlife to disperse beyond the solar farm.
Lesley Bennett, chair of our award-winning partner group Wiltshire Wildlife Community Energy (WWCE), is committed to protecting wildlife and biodiversity while generating community renewable energy:
“A well thought through, thoroughly researched land management plan is the absolute key to success. With the right support in place we hope to attract even more wildlife to our sites by creating new habitats as well as enhancing what is already there. WWCE is at the beginning of its journey. There is a long way to go, but as the sites have been managed correctly from the start, they have the potential to provide successful habitats for wildlife.”
Wiltshire Wildlife Community Energy operates two community solar farms, at Chelworth and Braydon Manor. WWCE is working with Wiltshire Wildlife Trust to create wildflower meadows around the solar panels. These have been seeded using a reputable supplier to ensure the provenance and origin of the seed.
More wildlife has already been seen at the Chelworth site since it was established in 2014. Before construction of the solar array endangered Great Crested Newts were found on the land. These were moved temporarily while the site was developed and returned upon its completion. A new pond was created which now provides an ideal habitat for them. Rare brown hares, whose population has declined by 80% over the last 100 years due to habitat loss and are becoming locally extinct, have been seen at the site. Roe deer have been seen grazing around the panels and a few bat species have been identified, using a solar panel-mounted detector. The wildflower meadow habitat is attracting birds and insects including damselflies, bees, bumblebees and butterflies. This progress shows that thanks to careful planning and management from the start of the project, in the future Chelworth has the potential to become a rich wildflower meadow, and an example of how solar farms can improve biodiversity.