Solar farms support greater biodiversity than traditional agricultural land, according to the findings of a new study.
Land set aside for solar panels is less intensively managed and sees grasslands and species-rich meadows flourish, researchers said, with such measures shown to attract a greater abundance of butterflies and bumblebees.
Despite government attempts to de-incentivise farmers’ investment in solar technology, the authors of the study claim there are “very few” alternative ways by which farmers can earn a sustainable income by creating large areas of conservation habitat.
Solar sites examined as part of the study were managed with wildlife in mind, containing diverse seed mixes and were largely given limited exposure to herbicides, livestock grazing and grass mowing.
A report produced by ecological consultants Clarkson & Woods and Wychwood Biodiversity and funded by the solar industry, states: “The over-arching finding of this study is that where solar farms implement management that is focused upon wildlife, an increase in biodiversity can be detected across a number of different species groups.
“Botanical diversity was found to be greater in solar farms than equivalent agricultural land. This partly reflects sowing of new grassland, including species rich meadow mixes, but also reflect less intensive management typical of a solar farm.”
It continues: “The conclusions reached so far indicate that solar farms can support a greater diversity of plants as well as greater numbers of butterflies and bumblebees, particularly under management which focuses on optimising biodiversity. This increase in plant and invertebrate availability may lead to more opportunities for foraging birds.”
Researchers also recorded a large number of brown hares - a species of conservation concern in many parts of the country - within solar farms compared with surrounding land.
The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) said the study’s findings are helpful and recommended further research is carried out.
An NFU spokesman said: “With the national area of solar farms now surpassing about 15,000 hectares, this very thorough and timely report recognises that ‘solar farms are unique in the farmed landscape’, and reaches a number of helpful conclusions about their management for biodiversity.
“Further work is recommended at sites which were previously pasture, on surveying small mammals and raptors, and in solar farms of different ages.”
Despite the benefits, delivering solar schemes has become trickier since government subsidies for renewable energy were ended in January 2015.
That decision has left some schemes which had been granted planning permission lacking crucial funding. One such project is York Solar Farm at Boscar Grange Farm in Easingwold.
Both York University and Askham Bryan College are involved in the scheme which includes plans to create “a haven for biodiversity” and assist in educating aspiring farmers and horticulturists.
The scheme would produce enough renewable electricity to meet the needs of almost 14,000 homes a year, and was approved by Hambleton District Council last September. But without government support its £50m costs are prohibitive.
Some £200,000 has already been invested in the scheme by developers Luminous Energy.
David Bryson, a director at the firm, said he hoped falling technology costs will help see the project come to fruition.
“We are pretty confident at some point next year we will get to a point where it’s viable to build,” Mr Bryson said.
Farmers lost the right to claim subsidies for installing solar panels in their fields at the start of last year.
It was an attempt to halt a rapid expansion of solar farms by making them less financially attractive for farmers.
When Environment Secretary Elizabeth Truss announced the decision, she argued that English farmland should be dedicated to growing quality food and crops and that solar panels waste farmland’s productive potential and blight its appearance.
Miss Truss said solar panels were best placed on the 250,000 hectares of south facing commercial rooftops and that subsidy cuts would save taxpayers £2m a year.