Blog post by Rob Shotton, MRes student, Worcester University.

I’m sure, like me, you’ve seen solar farms popping up all over the place in recent times and wondered what impact this has on biodiversity?

This is where I come in – wielding nothing but a pair of binoculars and a life-long passion for nature. Almost two years ago I was looking to get back into academia having been laid off from teaching animal care in further education.

I was looking for something I that I could fit in around looking after my son having recently become a dad, so I began a part time MRes at Worcester University investigating how birds use solar farms.

In partnership with the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science and energy solutions company Anesco, I set out to investigate the potential impact that these installations are having on farmland birds. This is what I’ve been up to so far…

Solar farm. Image by Rob Shotton.

Why the increase in solar farms?

The increase in solar power has been driven by the need to move away from our reliance on fossil fuels and tackle the urgent challenge of climate change - the greatest threat to nature. Over the last decade, the cost in solar has dropped by 80%, making their cost comparable to coal and gas production.

Clayhill solar farm near Luton is the first solar farm to be built in this country without subsidy. Mixed feelings? Yeah me too, it’s good news for the greater environment that a low carbon energy source has matured putting it alongside coal and gas, but it does leave me wondering what the cost is to local biodiversity.

Why are we researching the impact of solar farms?

Solar farms currently cover 0.2% of the UK and production is expected to double by 2030 (Not as long away as it sounds!). With a life span of 20 years, it’s vital that we understand what impact they have on nature, and quickly.

You may be aware of the huge drop in farmland birds over the past 40 years due in part to changing farming practices – we don’t want solar farms to exacerbate this. Once constructed 94% of the land taken up by the solar farm is accessible to nature, not what you’d imagine when you see them in the distance!

Solar panels. Image by Rob Shotton.

Good for nature?

Solar farms, once up and running, offer a potential haven for wildlife – being fenced off with access only available to those managing the site – as well as financially productive. At present typical management appears to be intensive, involving frequent mowing and the use of herbicides.

I’ve visited Westmill Solar farm near Swindon where wildflowers have been sown between the arrays and I’ve seen corn buntings dipping in and out between panels.

West Solent Solar, like many others, uses sheep to graze in the autumn and is now trialling spring grazing as an innovative an environmentally friendly way of keeping control of grass height and weeds under control.

What do we know about a solar farms impact so far?

Well not a lot… There is little published research investigating the effects of these installations on biodiversity.

Natural England recently carried out an evidence review of the impact of solar farms on birds, bats and general ecology in which they highly recommend “that research is undertaken into the ecological impacts of solar PV arrays across a broad range of taxa at multiple geographical scales”.

So working with Dr Duncan Westbury and Dr John Dutton of Worcester University and RSPB Senior Conservation Scientist Dr David Buckingham, I designed a study with the aim of assessing the abundance and diversity of birds using solar farms, compared to conventional farming.

Solar farm. Image by Rob Shotton.

The survey

Over two years I visited nine solar farms across central England during the breeding season, assessing the amount and type of bird activity displayed.

I recorded the species, number present, behaviour and location of birds also evaluating each sites’ habitat quality by recording heights and composition of the sward noting the predominant forb and grass species. I visited each site three times per year.

Anesco run all nine sites and are working with the RSPB to improve solar farm management for nature.

This ensured continuity between sites in term of array sizes and enabled ease of access, as I was dealing with just one company. The surveys were carried out between dawn +1hr and midday and only in fine weather with low wind.

I carried out a point count for 40 minutes followed by a flush walk on both the solar farm and a nearby control site which resembled the habitat which preceded the solar farm as closely as possible and was accessible to the same birds likely found on the solar farm.

Solar farm. Image by Rob Shotton.

First results coming soon

So, after lots of very early mornings and a cracking sun tan, I’m now coming to the end of data collection. I can’t give the final results just yet, but I’m putting together some of my findings so far based on the first year’s data collection which I’ll publish here soon.

Watch this space!

  • Interesting study, especially as they are certainly proliferating on previously productive farmland where I live in Cornwall.  One question though, were your study areas previously covered by CBC or BBS surveyors so that a comparative analysis between pre and post-solar farm bird assemblages can be made?