Solar Farms and Grasslands: A cautionary Tale.

280px-Dorset_rampdn_01

Rampisham Down Masts

Anyone who has lived in West Dorset for more than five years will immediately recognise the extraordinary landmark that was the Rampisham Down Transmitting Station. A large array of very tall Masts on one of the most prominent hills in West Dorset, Rampisham could be seen 4 counties on a clear day.

Rampisham Down was purchased by the BBC in 1938, to create a massive transmitting station, presumably for war purposes. Apparently the original world service station at Daventry was though vulnerable to bombing, so an alternative safer location was purchased. Rampisham went on to play a critical role in the Second World War and Cold War transmitting both propaganda and coded messages to spies and partisans across the world. Its last “active service” was broadcasting into Libya during the war that toppled Gaddafi.

Because it had been purchased just before the War and the impact on the landscape of The Great Harvest and the War Agriculture Committees, Rampisham escaped the ploughing that happened all around it. Even during the Cold War and after, Rampisham was undisturbed by the Agricultural Revolution, apart from some bracken being sprayed with Asulox. As a quasi military site (certainly a strategic bit of infrastructure), Rampisham was a bit like a military camp, run by civilian engineers. Sheep grazed under the massive antennae to keep the grass down, and it was also mowed in places. Older maps show a cricket pitch.

In the 80s the station was substantially upgraded (at great expense) to provide a state of the art short wave transmission station. In fact at the time of its closure it was the third most powerful SW transmitting station in the world, after the Russians and the Iranians.

But the cuts introduced by the Coalition took a swathe through BBC World Service funding and Rampisham was closed and put up for sale in 2011. It’s a large site – 76ha (187 acres in old money). As farmland it was low quality pasture, perhaps worth £12000/ha back then. That would have made a sale price of £912000. I guess the Foreign Office decided that radio was a dead technology in this world of the internet. That may turn out to have been a little bit naive; after all, who controls the internet? It’s easy enough for a country to stop web-users accessing sites – look at China.

The site was sold as a “potential renewable energy opportunity” “subject to planning.” In other words it did not have planning permission for wind turbines or a solar farm. The Agent wisely recommended potential purchasers make their own enquiries about these possibilities with the Local Authority, West Dorset District Council. What the Agent did not mention is that Rampisham Down was a County Wildlife Site, designated in 1996, on acccount of its unimproved Lowland Acid Grassland habitat. As it now turns out, it is the largest area of LAG habitat in Dorset, and one of the largest areas of U4 grassland in lowland England.

U4 (in the National Vegetation Classification – the NVC) is a ubiquitous grassland in the upland fringes of Britain and one expression U4e is often a species poor and impoverished grassland dominated by sheep’s fescue, common bent and mat-grass, created by sheep overgrazing heathland. Just the sort of thing decried by George Monbiot, and quite right too. The U4 at Rampisham could not be more different, as Rampisham is a chalk hill with a layer of more acidic clay on top. For the most part the clay completely covers the chalk, but in places becomes thin enough for teh chalk to influence the soil and vegetation. Calcicoles such as stemless thistle occur, along with fairy flax, ladies-bedstraw and others such as Betony and mouse-ear hawkweed that benefit from the impoverished soil. This places Rampisham closer to the very rare U4c, which is normally only found in upland areas with calcareous bedrock, such as the Peak District or Teesdale.

The site was purchased by British Solar Renewables Limited. This company is putting up solar farms all over the south west and have just had a cash injection of £40m. Their Managing Director Angus McDonald stated this would enable them to reach their target of constructing 120Mw of solar power generation in 6 months to now. That’s a lot of solar farms. And we need solar energy as part of our energy production mix: it’s not the complete obviously, but it will continue to become a more significant element of renewables, thanks for generous subsidies paid for by electricity consumers, like you and me. This subsidy is helping solar farm builders, and farmers, make a good profit. Solar farm businesses like BSRL will pay handsomely to rent land from farmers for 25 years, build the solar farms, and take the income. How much? According to this article, solar farm rentals can generate an income of between £1000 and £1500 per acre for a landowner, plus free electricity, for a site large enough to generate over 6Mw. That’s a very appealing figure, compared to £100 or £150 an acre for agricultural rent, and dwarfed only by housing development value. And the beauty of it is that a farming income can still be achieved, through sheep grazing. Whether or not such land would be eligible for single payment (or agri-environment schemes) I don’t know, but I imagine it would be. The market is white hot at the moment – non-domestic solar power generation increased by 20% globally in 2013. No wonder solar farms are springing up here there and everywhere.

British Solar Renewables make a big play on their being farmers and having an affinity withg the land. “As farmers ourselves, we have a lifelong affinity with the land and we know how to care for it.  We encourage our landowners to continue agricultural practice by grazing sheep on our sites and our land management experts will provide a constructive strategy for improving biodiversity on developed land where appropriate“.

BSR’s website gives some criteria for landowners to think about the perfect solar farm site – one of the criteria is “No SSSI’s or County Wildlife Sites.” BSR also target low quality agricultural land, but this is often where the wildlife lives.

Despite Rampisham Down being an SNCI when it was purchased, BSR decided to go ahead with a planning application which would place solar panels over a significant area of the site. The impact of construction (each panel sits on metal posts concreted into the ground) and shading from the panels would have caused short and long term irreparable damage to the grassland. Natural England, to their credit, speeded up their plans to notify the site as an SSSI (it was already recognised as needing notification before it was even sold). The landowners objected to the notification. Dorset Wildlife Trust objected to the planning application and this is where I came in – they took me on to represent them at the NE Board – supporting the case for Rampisham to be notified. After having helped RSPB put a strong case for the SSSI at Lodge Hill to be confirmed, I thought it would be a good opportunity to present evidence to the Natural England board, about grasslands and the NVC. Some of you may remember I was less than charitable about the NE Board and their understanding of the NVC, after the Lodge Hill meeting. Doug Hulyer had chided me for that remark, so I sought to make amends by explaining to the Board that the NVC is not about placing a higher value of sites which are more similar to the NVC “archetypes” but instead places equal value on sites which are atypical. And Rampisham certainly was atypical – partly because when the NVC was written, the presence of U4 in lowland England was unknown. I find this odd – after all chalk heath (effectively Rampisham is the acid grassland equivalent of chalk heath) was known about for a long time, certainly since the 50s. Anyway here’s my powerpoint presentation to the Board. Rampisham presentation Miles King

Thankfully Natural England confirmed the SSSI notification for Rampisham. A couple of things come to mind:

1. When the site was owned by the BBC it would have been subject to the Biodiversity Duty. How then can it be right for this duty to magically vanish when a site is sold into the private sector. Perhaps this could be tackled by the Law Commission Review, through a conservation covenant for example.

2. It simply cannot be right for a government subsidy (feed in tariff) to be blind to other values of land, such as biodiversity value. DECC should immediately change the rules governing application of the FIT such that it is not eligible for any solar or wind farm affecting a site supporting a priority habitat, unless it can shown categorically that no harm will be done. The burden of proof should be reversed.

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About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
This entry was posted in biodiversity, grasslands, Solar Farms and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Solar Farms and Grasslands: A cautionary Tale.

  1. Mark Fisher says:

    Hi Miles. The sale details said that the majority of the site was let for grazing under a Farm
    Business Tenancy producing £4000 pa. You ask whether such land would be eligible for single payment or agri-environment schemes. Well, there already is an Organic Entry Level Stewardship scheme (AG00366274) on the land, with 73.44 ha under agreement.The OELS had a start date of 1 April 2011. On that basis, there is likely also to be single payment. This would be before the closure and sale. It would be interesting to see the detail of the OELS agreement to see what restrictions were in place on the use of the land, and which the purchasers should have known of. I guess the SSSI designation will add even more. But this story then gets very messy!!!

    No details were given of the recipient of the OELS on Magic when I looked, but the Report to the Board of Natural England meeting on 26 February 2014: Rampisham Down SSSI says the OELS agreement was transferred to the Higher Hill Farm Partnership, who purchased the land in 2012.
    http://www.naturalengland.org.uk/Images/nebpu4105_tcm6-37405.pdf

    It goes on:
    “One of the Partners of Higher Hill Farm Partnership is the Managing Director of British Solar Renewables (BSR). BSR sought planning permission on 30 November 2012 to install around 160,000 solar arrays over most of the site. As part of the development, most of the transmission aerials were removed, trenches dug for cabling and base-poles installed in the ground. Installations and ground works disturbed parts of the site with approximately 20% having suffered significant (but recoverable) damage. Further, lighter damage occurred across the site but
    overall most of the grassland (>60%) remained intact. Following objections lodged by Natural England, Dorset Wildlife Trust (DWT) and the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE), and concerns raised by the Dorset AONB Partnership, West Dorset District Council (WDDC) requested that ongoing works stop until such time as the planning application is determined. In addition, a restoration plan for the damaged areas was prepared by the developer in consultation with DWT and the Dorset County Council Ecologist. The restoration plan has been fully implemented and no further work has progressed since around March 2013. A revised planning application was submitted in early April 2013 and this application is currently (February 2014) undetermined”

    “In light of the objections of both Natural England and DWT, WDDC used its powers under Regulation 22 of the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) (England and Wales) Regulations 2011 to require further information necessary to complete the Environmental Statement”

    “Rampisham Down was not in the planned SSSI notification programme for 2013/14”

    “Following receipt of the results of botanical survey carried out by the developer‟s consultants (The Landmark Practice 2013), the case was added to the 2013/14 programme for urgent consideration, to ensure that the local planning authority was fully aware of the site‟s nature conservation importance and to reduce the risk of further damage occurring to the site.
    Natural England first raised the prospect of SSSI notification in a letter dated 31 January 2013 to West Dorset District Council objecting to the planning application for construction of a solar park. SSSI notification was first discussed with the land owner during a meeting with officers on 15 May 2013”

    “The SSSI was notified on 22 August 2013 following approval by the Executive Board on 19 August 2013”

    Sorry, I should have paraphrased all this, but essentially it is another Lodge Hill where the imminence/progress of development reveals a conservation industry that is bumblingly reactive, and which seemingly is always moving the goal posts in justification. The problem is that if you only have a nature protection system that is blind to ownership, then it is not surprising that that ownership kicks you up the b*m! The covenants thing will only make it worse.

  2. nirgunapa says:

    I’m minded to quote Bill McKibben,
    “We’re struggling to replace a brittle, top-heavy energy system, where a few huge power plants provide our electricity, with a dispersed and lightweight grid, where 10 million solar arrays on 10 million rooftops are linked together. The engineers call this ‘distributed generation,’ and it comes with a myriad of benefits. It’s not as prone to catastrophic failure, for one. And it can make use of dispersed energy, instead of relying on a few pools of concentrated fuel.”
    We should not be building solar farms on such a small island.

  3. Pingback: Rampisham Down SSSI Solar Farm bid: Tomorrow is decision day | a new nature blog

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