Guest blog – Where green objectives clash by Peter Marren

marrenPeter Marren is the first person to have their third Guest Blog on this site (see here and here for his previous Guest Blogs).

Peter used to work for an excellent organisation called the Nature Conservancy Council (who remembers them? – and yes we didn’t always think they were excellent at the time but how we might wish them back…).  He now writes books and excellent articles (especially for British Wildlife magazine).

 

 

 

Where green objectives clash: nature versus renewables at Rampisham Down

Which is the most important: nature conservation or renewable energy? We are about to find out. The place where the issue will be decided is Rampisham Down, near Maiden Newton in Dorset. The place is best known for its nest of communication masts which have disfigured the skyline there since 1939. But underneath the masts is a surprise. This is an unusually large area of dry semi-natural acidic grassland of the kind technically known as U4. It is an unusual kind with a mixture of acidic and chalk plants. Quite by chance the masts have saved this grassland from the fate of nearly other example in the county: fertiliser and the plough. There is less than 5,000 ha of this kind of grassland left in Britain. 76ha of an unusually species –rich kind lies under the masts at Rampisham Down.

Natural England scheduled this site as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) in 2013. It did so partly in response to a threat. The site had been bought for British Solar Renewables with the intention of turning 40 ha of it into a solar farm – one of England’s largest with more than 100,000 (some say up to 160,000) panels. When the application went to West Dorset District Council in November last year it was opposed by Natural England and Dorset Wildlife Trust. The District’s Planning Officer recommended refusal. The Councillors thought otherwise and approved the application. Unanimously. Now Dorset Wildlife Trust is asking the Secretary of State, Eric Pickles, to call in the case for a Public Inquiry. With the general election on the way there is no time to lose.

That’s the case in outline. Just beneath the surface lie a number of issues. First acid grassland is not the easiest habitat to ‘sell’. To anyone except a botanist, Rampisham Down is a rather bleak spread of rough grass on a rounded hilltop broken by the odd gorse bush or shelter belt of pines. There is no public access. The whole place is behind barbed wire with multiple warning signs – including guard dogs. Local feeling is mainly one of relief that the masts are coming down at last.

The second problem is that West Dorset’s planners class this as a brownfield site. For brownfield sites there is, in general, a presumption in favour of redevelopment. At the meeting to consider the application, which, of course, was public, the Planning Officer repeatedly reminded Councillors that this does not apply to protected sites like Rampisham Down. Nevertheless some Councillors felt able to question its nature conservation value. One pointed out that herbicides and fertiliser had been used there (so they have, but only on small areas, such as around the masts). There was also a fear that the area might ‘go to scrub’. Many people seem terrified of that outcome but there are ways of preventing scrub encroachment, one of which is called sheep.

Unfortunately the Councillors seemed more impressed by the developer’s evidence than Natural England’s. They were able to produce Sir Ghillean Prance, a distinguished botanist and former director of Kew Gardens. In Sir Ghillean’s view, the site was “degraded, highly impacted habitat”. Moreover, in his opinion the site’s interest would survive the installation of 100,000 solar panels since these now have windows that let a little light through to the grass underneath. The developers had performed some experiments which suggested that, after six months, there was no discernible difference to the vegetation. Natural England responded that six months is nowhere near long enough, but Sir Ghillean seemed impressed with the results and so, apparently, were the Councillors. There was even a suggestion that development could somehow improve the value of the SSSI though no evidence for that was forthcoming.

Like most conservation bodies, the Dorset Wildlife Trust is an enthusiast for renewable energy. The land purchased by the developers includes a smaller area on the opposite side of the road which is improved grassland, formerly part of a dairy farm, of minimal value for wildlife. The Trust supports this alternative and it is also investigating suitable sites for solar farms elsewhere in the county.

A final reason why the application was approved is the local councillors’ fear of windfarms. Like everywhere else, Dorset has been set targets for renewable energy. Windfarms are deeply unpopular in West Dorset. Like the communication masts on Rampisham Down you can see them for miles in this countryside of rounded hills and deep valleys. Better solar panels, you might think, than three-hundred-foot wind turbines.

These are some of the questions Eric Pickles’ officials should consider: was the District right to ignore its Planning Officers’ recommendation? How compatible are solar panels and grassland wildlife? Should natural grassland be demoted to ‘brownfield’ simply because it has man-made structures on it? Should the evidence of a star witness outweigh that of the Government’s own advisors on wildlife and the county experts? Is it right that ‘Cinderella’ habitats like acid grassland should weigh less than more glamorous sites, especially when they don’t have any Nightingales? And finally, if the application is confirmed, where does that leave the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework?

It is all down to Mr Pickles now. Quite a lot may hang on his decision.

Follow the Rampisham Down affair in detail on Miles King’s blog.

40 Comments

  1. Alan Parfitt says:

    The answer to the question, “is nature conservation more importanr than renewable energy”, is that they are both important. However I think the key point in this case is that it is perfectly possible to locate this renewable energy project elsewhere but that is not so in the case of this acidic grassland, at least not in any practiacal way.
    The question therefore has a basic fallacy within it.
    In my experience from industry, developers usually choose what they think will be the cheapest site for there project (maximum profit). There are often several alternative sites they could use but they do not tell anyone what they are because it might mean some redesign of their plans.
    Overall, it should be very unusual indeed if there is a direct clash between nature and renewables and I am sure it is not necessary in this case. The development needs to be relocated elsewhere.

  2. Lyn E says:

    I spent a very pleasant afternoon on a bird cruise round Poole Harbour yesterday. The large number of sun-catching buildings in and around Poole caught my eye and made me wonder how much power could be generated by them with solar panels in place. I feel that biodiversity needs to be given more weight and that rare habitats should be a last resort not a first choice because they are easy to develop.

  3. Miles says:

    The developers acquired Rampisham Down in order to develop it as a Solar Farm. In the same way that Land Securities insist that Lodge Hill is the only place in Medway where a new town can be built, British Solar Renewables insist that Rampisham Down is the only place where they can build their solar farm.

    This of course makes a mockery of the alternative sites test in the NPPF; I think the NPPF authors meant that planning committees should consider all alternatives, whereas they appear to be only considering between alternatives convenient to developers.

  4. Serena says:

    Very surprising and disappointing that Sir Ghillean is taking the side of developers against our local British wildlife, but unfortunately our British plants aren’t as obviously glamorous as those in the Amazon and are thus perhaps too easily overlooked. The same applies to the unjustly stigmatised “brownfield” sites, many of which are far more important ecologically than the superficially more appealing “greenfields” which are often very impoverished in terms of wildlife.

    Haven’t people from the conservation community contacted Sir Ghillean to put the ecological and conservation case for saving Rampisham? Could that help?

  5. Keith Wheaton-Green says:

    Peter’s explanation of the situation is excellent. The solar farm would generate the equivalent in a year to more than one quarter of all West Dorset households so this would be a very significant renewable electricity generating station. The vegetation is a plagio-climax (so not as nature intended) that – as Peter pointed out – does not excite the majority of the population. And in any case it will be largely preserved. I believe the threats of climate change to be so urgent that we need to move to 100% renewables ASAP. The calls from nature conservationists to have this application called in and for local democracy to be thwarted does nature conservation a great diservice.

    • AdamM says:

      Keith – the vast majority of the British landscape is ‘plagio-climax’ but it doesn’t mean it is of low ecological value. Quite the opposite in this instance. You suggest that because the site doesn’t ‘excite the majority of households’ that should reduce its intrinsic worth. So it’s OK to build anywhere that fits that category is it? The site will largely be preserved? Really? More than half the site will be built upon, with, let’s be honest here, completely unknown impacts.

      Why not site it elsewhere?

    • Mud-Lark says:

      Are you suggesting that developers have adopted best practice in this situation Mr Wheaton-Green?

      I seem to recall that developers operate by ‘guidelines’ in such matters, whilst conservation has to comply with legislation?

      But then again, legislation to protect best examples and ensure developments don’t impact has been weakened by the ConDems which has resulted in the Planning System in something of a pickle again, and in need of serious review and reform? Might I be permitted to suggest any reform would not be by vested interests or selective committees lining up for gongs or appointments or commissions.

      I would agree we need all options, energy and wildlife habitats and one as already stated by others is not more important than the other and there should not be a competition but good planning system which identifies and signposts to appropriate sites (how about large shed (industrial estate type) roofs etc.?

  6. filbert cobb says:

    “Which is the most important: nature conservation or renewable energy?”

    Neither. “Solar Power is a game changer. It takes daylight and turns it into money”. Source – British Solar Renewables website

    • Serena says:

      You’ve hit the nail on the head here, Filbert. Money. That’s what this is all about. Developers and their cronies see opportunity for them to maximise financial return to themselves at the expense of our wildlife.

  7. Dave Hickson says:

    There must be enough usable rooftops in the UK for solar panels without the need for damaging sites of conservation interest

  8. Jonathan Wallace says:

    This case is, like the Medway proposal, a deeply depressing example of how easily the protected status of sites gets overturned.
    I wonder whether the experience with the Sanctuary in Derby might give some cause for optimism, though. Rampisham Down has a higher level of protection – in theory – than the Sanctuary so potentially a Judicial Review might be successful in getting the scheme knocked back? I hope so. I presume that the Dorset WT is considering all of its options and may already be on the case…

  9. Ernest Moss says:

    “How compatible are solar panels and grassland wildlife?”

    That’s a very interesting question and certainly an area worthy of some long-term research. I’m not sure that six years would be anywhere long enough to fully assess the impacts – but six months? That’s nothing short of ludicrous.

  10. Dennis Ames says:

    Some funny goings on here,how come so much known about the site when enclosed in barbed wire and signs warning guard dogs and as for putting sheep on there to keep it as a special habitat well that is a joke,sheep need pens,lambing sheds,and someone close to them for husbandry purposes,they need to be looked at regularly especially in this type of place where it is likely people take dogs for walks and far too many sheep get worried to death by my fido who would not harm a fly and he/she loves being off the lead.
    Whose sheep,who decides how many,when to remove them,sheep need chemicals to remove worms,will these damage the area which quite frankly always seems a mess.
    If it is so important why didn’t conservation groups on the doorstep buy it.
    Laugh about the sheep is that conservationists continually complain about sheep destroying places with overgrazing.
    Now suddenly they are the saviours—how come.

    • Bill Jenman says:

      Hi Dennis.
      As the site is an SSSI – an nationally important wildife site – Natural England would have had access to do survey work, and commonly ecologists are allowed to look at private high quality sites – even at Porton Down! That’s how so much will be known about it.
      I presume that as a private site there would continue to be no public access, and hence no issues with dogs, but you’re right that grazing requires livestock husbandry. A small permanent pen might do the job, or as is often the case a mobile pen could be used as needed. It sounds like a reasonably economic grazing proposition.
      Conservation groups are quite pushed for cash, you know – besides, if the landowner thought it had development potential, as he obviously does, it would be on the market at way more than any conservation organisation could afford. Perhaps 10x or even 100x its agricultural value.

      Finally, the right sheep in the right place are good, too many or in the wrong place are bad. Just because overgrazing one habitat can be damaging, it doesn’t follow that all grazing everywhere is equally bad. Grazing species rich lowland grasslands is pretty much essential to keep them in good nick, and it sounds quite do-able here.

    • Jonathan Wallace says:

      “If it is so important why didn’t conservation groups on the doorstep buy it”.

      You must realise, Dennis, that there are a whole host of perfectly good reasons why not:

      – They probably don’t have the funds available to do so
      – Until, the solar farm proposal came along there was no reason for them to consider doing so if the existing management of the site was satisfactory from the point of view of maintaining the botanical interest;
      – Even if they had been willing and able to buy it, they may not have been given the opportunity to buy the land when it was sold to the developers.

      You may well be able to think of other reasons why they didn’t buy it, Dennis, but clearly the fact that they did not says nothing about whether the site is botanically important or whether the proposed solar farm will damage that importance.

    • Steve J says:

      Slightly nonsensical comments, Dennis, if you don’t mind me saying. Sheep graze all winter on the 5ha chalk grassland SSSI behind my garden, with no more than a barbed wire fence to keep them in, a couple of water troughs and signs at the access points to remind dog owners to keep their pets under control. The grazier has all the facilities you list elsewhere. Works extremely well, has done for years, and is now common practice across numerous scattered grassland wildlife sites across the country.

    • Steve J says:

      And while I’m at it, Dennis…..do you think that a wildlife site is only worthy of saving if it’s been purchased by a wildlife conservation charity, and if not, it’s up for grabs, whatever its value? So we can plaster all those moorlands with wind farms, can we, no matter what the impacts – because, if they were worth saving, a conservation group would have bought them by now?! How many millions are you prepared to donate to purchase the thousands of hectares of scattered chalk grassland sites across southern England? Perhaps the Amazon is only worth saving if these rich conservation groups go and buy it up?

      An alternative to purchasing absolutely everything of value might be to have wildlife laws that afford protection commensurate with the value of a site: if of more than national importance, designate as SPA or SAC, if of national value, SSSI. Hang on, that’s what we already have!

      Before we build on SSSIs, we ought to make sure there aren’t alternative, less damaging spots to stick the development – and Dorset isn’t short of biofuel-producing arable and nitrogen-green grass and, more to the point, urban roof space.

      If we want more solar, which we obviously do, then legislate to require all new build – residential and commercial – to incorporate solar, that way, demand goes up, costs go down, we all get cleaner locally-generated electricity, and we get to keep what few wildlife sites we have left.

    • Miles says:

      Dennis – sometimes it’s worth doing a bit of reading about a subject before pontificating.

      Natural England has a right of access to land to carry out surveys if they believe it is of special interest, barbed wire or not.

      The ideal grazing regime for Rampisham would be a combination of cattle and sheep grazing. The owners have put on sheep in the last few weeks, I would guess under pressure from Natural England, since the land is still in OELS and payments are subject to it being managed in accordance with that scheme. There is no public access other than by footpaths which run along the edge of the site. Organic means you cannot use worming on the land – the sheep will have been wormed on non-organic land.

      The land was sold for £3.3M – way beyond the ability of any conservation group to purchase it.

      Some might argue that for “nature” Rampisham Down should be left to develop into scrub and eventually secondary woodland. These few would agree with you that using sheep to “conserve” the nature there is absurd. The rest of us understand about the value of semi-natural habitats such as lowland acid grassland.

  11. Bill Jenman says:

    My team came up against Sir Ghillean Prance in a PI in the early 2000s. He took an unusual position then too, opposing EN and advocating in support of one of the most intensively managed pheasant shoots I’ve ever come across.

    His position was surprising, but very much in keeping with his client’s case.

  12. Ian Boyd says:

    Billing this case as a straight fight between duelling green objectives gives it a privilege it doesn’t deserve. The ranking was made the day it was notified SSSI.
    It’s much more about the bloody dismal state of local decision-making – planning committees that haven’t read their brief, don’t understand the facts, haven’t a handle on their own policies (or anyone else’s) and vote because they ‘reckon’ this or that.
    Solar parks are ugly things, but i quite like them. The enclosure/exclosure effect of those i’ve looked at, on clay and greensand arable, has the potential to be interesting and useful.
    But it’s no good just strapping pvs onto the back of an ‘unfavourable declining’ SSSI and claim a win-win double gold star, as BSR would wish it. What you can do is demonstrate enlightened corporate environmental responsibility and fund the (cheap) rehabilitation of a national significant ecological resource (one that you actually own), with a morsel of your green profits from elsewhere (nearby even). That’s a win-win.

  13. Andrew Lucas says:

    Just to add a little to Bill’s comments, SSSIs are not designated on a whim. A site of this size will have taken weeks, and more likely months to assess, with careful mapping of the vegetation communities to evaluate the extent and quality, and then checking against other SSSIs in the Area of Search, and against the guidelines for SSSI selection. Ecologists from the statutory agencies often get access to locations not open to the public like this (it’s a lovely perk of the job!). In any case, the agencies also have legal powers to insist on access to land that is either an SSSI, or to land to investigate whether it should be considered as an SSSI. Those powers are only used very rarely indeed in my experience, because of the damage they can cause to owner relations. So nothing funny going on, I’d say.

    Keith – I am with you 100% on the need to move to a low carbon economy. Yes, I have solar panels on my house. So I’d be really interested to hear how from the developers how they intend to conserve the grassland (trust me – 76ha of lowland U4 would definitely excite my interest!!). What management do they have in mind? More specifically, what actions will they take if subsequent monitoring shows the grassland feature to be in unfavourable and declining condition? Mark – you might like to approach them for a guest blog?

  14. John Miles says:

    We need a government like Greece before we get solar panels on all our houses. Our present one needs to give money to developers not the general public so they can BUY their way to winning the next general election.

    • Steve J says:

      Point taken, John, although presumably the government wouldn’t need to give money to anyone – simply require developers to include the provision of solar panels on new build, which would make the costs of solar go down (due to increased demand).
      Maybe this would add a small sum onto the costs of a residential property, though developers might absorb that, and any costs added to retail/business units (all those flat-roofed Tesco’s and Co-ops; new industrial estates) could simply be born by the developer/occupier. We don’t get much sun, but if solar is viable at Rampisham I don’t see why it’s not viable on buildings in Bournemouth.

  15. Dennis Ames says:

    Well what is really interesting is people who live perhaps even hundreds of miles away having such a lot of knowledge and think they are so much more important than local population.
    Locals are almost unanimous in favour of solar farm and some experts with experience of solar farms believe it will not harm the site but anyway to my way of thinking local opinion beats that from hundreds of miles away.
    Strange NE apparently did not recognise the beauty of the site until 2013.
    Whoever said barbed wire will keep sheep in thinks they know more than every sheep farmer I know it is not practical full stop but that is a side issue I did not bring up anyway.
    There is a large scrubby area on the edge of this site where dogs get walked.
    The site has been described as like a ploughed field in 1981 so the relevance of it being so important a site has to be doubtful and of course while Peter Marren is a expert who almost all those commenting on here take word for word what he says so everyone has to think the same he is just as biased in his thinking as another expert who says a solar farm is the best option for this site.
    We do not hear any complaint strangely when really good agricultural land is taken for solar farms and this is just as important with the fast population increase in UK that is happening.
    It is reported by people much closer to the site than I would think any one of those who have commented that the site has been sprayed with a very toxic weedkiller and also fertilised a fact I have not seen contradicted but tried to be played down by saying small areas by someone that is biased.

    • filbert cobb says:

      I have forwarded this to Lord Prescott for a translation

    • Jonathan Wallace says:

      So are you saying that only local people have a right to a view on this, Dennis? Is that a principle you’d apply to all conservation issues? You are pretty forthright in your demands for action about Hen Harrier persecution but how close do you live to the upland areas of northern England? How close to those areas do most of the 20,000 or so people who have signed Mark’s petition live? I daresay there are plenty of ‘local people’ living around grouse shooting areas who see anti raptor persecution people such as you as meddling interferers who should shut up and mind their own effing business. I think those people are wrong and we all have a right to protest and campaign on behalf of hen harriers whether we live in Bowland, Birmingham or by Bow Bells. By the same token we all have a right to protest when a nationally significant area of vegetation is threatened with destruction, whether we are local or not.

    • Miles says:

      Give it up Dennis.

      You know nothing about the site and picking up fag ends left by the developers, their consultants or their friends, does you no favours here or anywhere else.

  16. DBS says:

    Typically there is always a few nutty comments and Dennis you’ve done yourself proud once again. Obviously this is P Marren’s guest blog but in reading Miles King’s piece about Rampisham https://anewnatureblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/15/another-sssi-to-be-trashed-councillors-approve-solar-farm-on-rampisham-down/ I noted a comment from a previous manager at the site when it was managed sympathetically for its grassland wildlife before the rampant solar farm developers driven by govt sweeteners went in an tried to trash the place without planning permission back in 2012. Miles King gives a rather neat potted history of the solar company in the last few years which I would encourage readers to look at. Also Rampisham Down was/is a county wildlife site and has been since 1996 as recorded by the Dorset Wildlife Trust so its been pretty good for a few years at least. Anyway the former site managers comments:
    Ian Jennings says:

    It is an environmental tragedy that WDDC approved the PV park at Rampisham. I was the station manager at Rampisham Transmitting station for a number of years and tremendous efforts were taken to preserve the diverse flora and fauna on site. Outside of the controlled access roads to the antennas the land remained untouched aside from routine topping to preserve its unique character. The site was also home to colonies of dormice which I fear have been destroyed in the decommissioning process along with much of the preserved flora. Decommissioning started without any regard to the due process of planning and as such necessary safeguarding conditions could not be put in place. At the planning meeting Ghillean Prance spoke as a consultant for the applicant and his advice is not impartial and should have been treated such. Natural England have no axe to grind other than to preserve this unique environment. A PV park on this site is inappropriate in any event. By its nature the site is far from any major settlement and much of the power generated will be lost in the power transmission lines between the point of generation and the point of use. PV parks are more suited within or near to settlements. Wind turbines generate significantly more power, and not just during the hours of daylight, their footprint is no greater than the antenna towers on site and the grasslands would be preserved. The site is a high plateau with excellent wind speed and wind farm would be a better renewable use for the site than solar PV.
    In the meantime it is important that all efforts are made to call in this inappropriate planning decision at the highest level.
    So Dennis what do you say to that eh? From a man that knows!

  17. Dennis Ames says:

    The Hen Harrier is different completely as what is happening is illegal and that is all that I would ask for,just muddying the waters.
    In the Rampisham case local opinion should be important as those locals have put up with one of the ugliest sights in the country for nigh on 74 years for the benefit of the population in this country one way or another and the site was probably used in some capacity for the security of UK.
    Whatever happens the ironic part really is that hardly anyone whatever the outcome will get to enjoy what most comments on here seem to think is a really wonderful place.
    Whoever owns it will not have people tramping around it and it is not somewhere so beautiful that people will travel to that area.
    There is another reason also as in all probability the best thing is some form of compromise as for sure if they felt like it the owners could find a way legally to just get any vegetation of any description to die off.
    Miles,there is no way that a few like you should think you have more rights to what you want than local people.
    Ironic part is also if the only way those totally against this solar farm could get electric they would be for it undoubtedly so it is a valuable resource.

    • Rich Facey says:

      To quote Miles, “Give it up Dennis”

    • Jonathan Wallace says:

      Miles has not claimed more rights than anyone else. He is arguing a case for the protection of a piece of land that has a high level, nationally protected status and which is threatened by a development proposal. He is as entitled to do this as anyone else wherever they live. The plants have no voice or vote of their own and depend on people to determine their fate. If we continually allow SSSIs and other protected sites to be destroyed in the name of development we will end up with nothing and no wildlife site can be considered safe wherever it is and whoever lives nearby.

      The meaning of your last sentence is not very clear but if I understand you correctly you seem to be saying that opponents of the development would be in favour of it if it was the only way they could obtain electricity. Well, clearly it is not even remotely the only way they can get electricity and as has been pointed out by several commenters above it is not even the only place where solar energy could be produced.

  18. Dennis Ames says:

    Jonathon and Rich,the point is really those councillors all relatively local who must know all about it have listened to all the arguments put forward by opponents of the solar farm and have in fact thought they were not good enough reasons to go against the solar farm.
    Why people have to think that these councillors representing the local community are wrong defies logic.
    Quite obviously whether people who comment on here like it or not that decision was taken after listening to all objections and decision was in the best interests of West Dorset which is there duty and they were elected as responsible people.
    The value of the site where solar farm is proposed after all the recent activity and all the previous structures and various things connecting them is dubious.
    It is in all probability the only practical use for Rampisham down as no way could a few sheep produce a income of that would be adequate for that land and for certain those wanting to keep it free of solar panels would not contribute any viable amount to its owners.
    Fair play just like everyone who comments on here they want money from investment and labour just the same as everyone and why shouldn’t they.
    Interestingly all those opposed have not said one word about how they could pay anything to keep the solar panels off the site.Per usual.

  19. James says:

    Several comments are on local opinion. I live about two miles from Rampisham and can see the half a dozen or so remaining masts from my window.

    I actually liked the old radio masts. Wherever I went in Dorset and further afield they showed me where home was. Locals were used to tall structures on the site so I personally would not have objected to wind turbines on the site – more energy and less footprint, though probably not a view held by many.

    I was staggered to see the illegal work the developer undertook on the site -“rampant solar farm developers driven by govt sweeteners went in an tried to trash the place without planning permission back in 2012.” (DBS above). They knocked over most of the 30 or so masts and put in the steel piles for many of the rows of panels. They threw about a hundred or so people at the work to try to get the panels up before a reduction in the tariff they would earn. It took a good few weeks for the council to draw a halt to this during which time with a very wet winter and machinery they significantly damaged. They clearly thought they were above planning law with their motives purely profit.

    Yes we need renewable energy but this is not the place for it. This is a large example of an unusual habitat. Its designation should protect it. “Our” local planning committee have failed us.

    • Miles says:

      I have heard a number of other people say how they grew up with the masts and liked them, or didn’t think about them – they were just part of the landscape. I’ve only lived in Dorset 18 years, but I never thought of them as a blot on the landscape, especially after I learnt about the history of the site.

      James – did you put an objection to BSR’s planning application?

      It’s interesting how much effort BSR are putting in to trying to persuade everyone that the local community is fully supporting the development. They have no actual evidence for this support.

      i agree about the wind turbines – it would have been a “like for like” replacement of the masts, and if they had constructed them in the same places as the existing concrete pads there would havqe been very little argument against the development from a conservation perspective (landscape of wildlife). But BSR are solar farmers, not wind farmers.

  20. Keith Wheaton-Green says:

    I fully support the comments on here suggesting PV panels should be put on all suitable roof tops. Just think of the huge numbers of suitable steel barns, commercial sheds and house roofs. The reason those installations are not happening fast enough is the low and declining feed in tariff. The majority party in this government are still listening to lobbying from fossil fuel and big 6 energy supply interests. The last thing they want is democratization of electricity supply. Even new buildings don’t need PV fitting to get planning permission, which I believe is crazy. For anyone wanting to influence BSR, it might be worth considering the governments recent Shared ownership taskforce and resultant protocol to allow the community to take a share of large solar and wind farms. I wonder what the response from nature conservationists would have been to a proposal for a wind farm at Rampisham.

  21. […] Energy Group alongside Giles Frampton from British Solar Renewables. Wheaton-Green commented on Peter Marren’s Rampisham Blog […]

  22. […] Marren has contributed Guest Blogs here before (Where green objectives clash, 26 January 2015; Ashes to ashes, 7 November 2012; Wildlife NGOs, 7 October 2011) and his excellent book Rainbow […]

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  1. Alan Parfitt says:

    The answer to the question, “is nature conservation more importanr than renewable energy”, is that they are both important. However I think the key point in this case is that it is perfectly possible to locate this renewable energy project elsewhere but that is not so in the case of this acidic grassland, at least not in any practiacal way.
    The question therefore has a basic fallacy within it.
    In my experience from industry, developers usually choose what they think will be the cheapest site for there project (maximum profit). There are often several alternative sites they could use but they do not tell anyone what they are because it might mean some redesign of their plans.
    Overall, it should be very unusual indeed if there is a direct clash between nature and renewables and I am sure it is not necessary in this case. The development needs to be relocated elsewhere.

  2. Lyn E says:

    I spent a very pleasant afternoon on a bird cruise round Poole Harbour yesterday. The large number of sun-catching buildings in and around Poole caught my eye and made me wonder how much power could be generated by them with solar panels in place. I feel that biodiversity needs to be given more weight and that rare habitats should be a last resort not a first choice because they are easy to develop.

  3. Miles says:

    The developers acquired Rampisham Down in order to develop it as a Solar Farm. In the same way that Land Securities insist that Lodge Hill is the only place in Medway where a new town can be built, British Solar Renewables insist that Rampisham Down is the only place where they can build their solar farm.

    This of course makes a mockery of the alternative sites test in the NPPF; I think the NPPF authors meant that planning committees should consider all alternatives, whereas they appear to be only considering between alternatives convenient to developers.

  4. Serena says:

    Very surprising and disappointing that Sir Ghillean is taking the side of developers against our local British wildlife, but unfortunately our British plants aren’t as obviously glamorous as those in the Amazon and are thus perhaps too easily overlooked. The same applies to the unjustly stigmatised “brownfield” sites, many of which are far more important ecologically than the superficially more appealing “greenfields” which are often very impoverished in terms of wildlife.

    Haven’t people from the conservation community contacted Sir Ghillean to put the ecological and conservation case for saving Rampisham? Could that help?

  5. Keith Wheaton-Green says:

    Peter’s explanation of the situation is excellent. The solar farm would generate the equivalent in a year to more than one quarter of all West Dorset households so this would be a very significant renewable electricity generating station. The vegetation is a plagio-climax (so not as nature intended) that – as Peter pointed out – does not excite the majority of the population. And in any case it will be largely preserved. I believe the threats of climate change to be so urgent that we need to move to 100% renewables ASAP. The calls from nature conservationists to have this application called in and for local democracy to be thwarted does nature conservation a great diservice.

    • AdamM says:

      Keith – the vast majority of the British landscape is ‘plagio-climax’ but it doesn’t mean it is of low ecological value. Quite the opposite in this instance. You suggest that because the site doesn’t ‘excite the majority of households’ that should reduce its intrinsic worth. So it’s OK to build anywhere that fits that category is it? The site will largely be preserved? Really? More than half the site will be built upon, with, let’s be honest here, completely unknown impacts.

      Why not site it elsewhere?

    • Mud-Lark says:

      Are you suggesting that developers have adopted best practice in this situation Mr Wheaton-Green?

      I seem to recall that developers operate by ‘guidelines’ in such matters, whilst conservation has to comply with legislation?

      But then again, legislation to protect best examples and ensure developments don’t impact has been weakened by the ConDems which has resulted in the Planning System in something of a pickle again, and in need of serious review and reform? Might I be permitted to suggest any reform would not be by vested interests or selective committees lining up for gongs or appointments or commissions.

      I would agree we need all options, energy and wildlife habitats and one as already stated by others is not more important than the other and there should not be a competition but good planning system which identifies and signposts to appropriate sites (how about large shed (industrial estate type) roofs etc.?

  6. filbert cobb says:

    “Which is the most important: nature conservation or renewable energy?”

    Neither. “Solar Power is a game changer. It takes daylight and turns it into money”. Source – British Solar Renewables website

    • Serena says:

      You’ve hit the nail on the head here, Filbert. Money. That’s what this is all about. Developers and their cronies see opportunity for them to maximise financial return to themselves at the expense of our wildlife.

  7. Dave Hickson says:

    There must be enough usable rooftops in the UK for solar panels without the need for damaging sites of conservation interest

  8. Jonathan Wallace says:

    This case is, like the Medway proposal, a deeply depressing example of how easily the protected status of sites gets overturned.
    I wonder whether the experience with the Sanctuary in Derby might give some cause for optimism, though. Rampisham Down has a higher level of protection – in theory – than the Sanctuary so potentially a Judicial Review might be successful in getting the scheme knocked back? I hope so. I presume that the Dorset WT is considering all of its options and may already be on the case…

  9. Ernest Moss says:

    “How compatible are solar panels and grassland wildlife?”

    That’s a very interesting question and certainly an area worthy of some long-term research. I’m not sure that six years would be anywhere long enough to fully assess the impacts – but six months? That’s nothing short of ludicrous.

  10. Dennis Ames says:

    Some funny goings on here,how come so much known about the site when enclosed in barbed wire and signs warning guard dogs and as for putting sheep on there to keep it as a special habitat well that is a joke,sheep need pens,lambing sheds,and someone close to them for husbandry purposes,they need to be looked at regularly especially in this type of place where it is likely people take dogs for walks and far too many sheep get worried to death by my fido who would not harm a fly and he/she loves being off the lead.
    Whose sheep,who decides how many,when to remove them,sheep need chemicals to remove worms,will these damage the area which quite frankly always seems a mess.
    If it is so important why didn’t conservation groups on the doorstep buy it.
    Laugh about the sheep is that conservationists continually complain about sheep destroying places with overgrazing.
    Now suddenly they are the saviours—how come.

    • Bill Jenman says:

      Hi Dennis.
      As the site is an SSSI – an nationally important wildife site – Natural England would have had access to do survey work, and commonly ecologists are allowed to look at private high quality sites – even at Porton Down! That’s how so much will be known about it.
      I presume that as a private site there would continue to be no public access, and hence no issues with dogs, but you’re right that grazing requires livestock husbandry. A small permanent pen might do the job, or as is often the case a mobile pen could be used as needed. It sounds like a reasonably economic grazing proposition.
      Conservation groups are quite pushed for cash, you know – besides, if the landowner thought it had development potential, as he obviously does, it would be on the market at way more than any conservation organisation could afford. Perhaps 10x or even 100x its agricultural value.

      Finally, the right sheep in the right place are good, too many or in the wrong place are bad. Just because overgrazing one habitat can be damaging, it doesn’t follow that all grazing everywhere is equally bad. Grazing species rich lowland grasslands is pretty much essential to keep them in good nick, and it sounds quite do-able here.

    • Jonathan Wallace says:

      “If it is so important why didn’t conservation groups on the doorstep buy it”.

      You must realise, Dennis, that there are a whole host of perfectly good reasons why not:

      – They probably don’t have the funds available to do so
      – Until, the solar farm proposal came along there was no reason for them to consider doing so if the existing management of the site was satisfactory from the point of view of maintaining the botanical interest;
      – Even if they had been willing and able to buy it, they may not have been given the opportunity to buy the land when it was sold to the developers.

      You may well be able to think of other reasons why they didn’t buy it, Dennis, but clearly the fact that they did not says nothing about whether the site is botanically important or whether the proposed solar farm will damage that importance.

    • Steve J says:

      Slightly nonsensical comments, Dennis, if you don’t mind me saying. Sheep graze all winter on the 5ha chalk grassland SSSI behind my garden, with no more than a barbed wire fence to keep them in, a couple of water troughs and signs at the access points to remind dog owners to keep their pets under control. The grazier has all the facilities you list elsewhere. Works extremely well, has done for years, and is now common practice across numerous scattered grassland wildlife sites across the country.

    • Steve J says:

      And while I’m at it, Dennis…..do you think that a wildlife site is only worthy of saving if it’s been purchased by a wildlife conservation charity, and if not, it’s up for grabs, whatever its value? So we can plaster all those moorlands with wind farms, can we, no matter what the impacts – because, if they were worth saving, a conservation group would have bought them by now?! How many millions are you prepared to donate to purchase the thousands of hectares of scattered chalk grassland sites across southern England? Perhaps the Amazon is only worth saving if these rich conservation groups go and buy it up?

      An alternative to purchasing absolutely everything of value might be to have wildlife laws that afford protection commensurate with the value of a site: if of more than national importance, designate as SPA or SAC, if of national value, SSSI. Hang on, that’s what we already have!

      Before we build on SSSIs, we ought to make sure there aren’t alternative, less damaging spots to stick the development – and Dorset isn’t short of biofuel-producing arable and nitrogen-green grass and, more to the point, urban roof space.

      If we want more solar, which we obviously do, then legislate to require all new build – residential and commercial – to incorporate solar, that way, demand goes up, costs go down, we all get cleaner locally-generated electricity, and we get to keep what few wildlife sites we have left.

    • Miles says:

      Dennis – sometimes it’s worth doing a bit of reading about a subject before pontificating.

      Natural England has a right of access to land to carry out surveys if they believe it is of special interest, barbed wire or not.

      The ideal grazing regime for Rampisham would be a combination of cattle and sheep grazing. The owners have put on sheep in the last few weeks, I would guess under pressure from Natural England, since the land is still in OELS and payments are subject to it being managed in accordance with that scheme. There is no public access other than by footpaths which run along the edge of the site. Organic means you cannot use worming on the land – the sheep will have been wormed on non-organic land.

      The land was sold for £3.3M – way beyond the ability of any conservation group to purchase it.

      Some might argue that for “nature” Rampisham Down should be left to develop into scrub and eventually secondary woodland. These few would agree with you that using sheep to “conserve” the nature there is absurd. The rest of us understand about the value of semi-natural habitats such as lowland acid grassland.

  11. Bill Jenman says:

    My team came up against Sir Ghillean Prance in a PI in the early 2000s. He took an unusual position then too, opposing EN and advocating in support of one of the most intensively managed pheasant shoots I’ve ever come across.

    His position was surprising, but very much in keeping with his client’s case.

  12. Ian Boyd says:

    Billing this case as a straight fight between duelling green objectives gives it a privilege it doesn’t deserve. The ranking was made the day it was notified SSSI.
    It’s much more about the bloody dismal state of local decision-making – planning committees that haven’t read their brief, don’t understand the facts, haven’t a handle on their own policies (or anyone else’s) and vote because they ‘reckon’ this or that.
    Solar parks are ugly things, but i quite like them. The enclosure/exclosure effect of those i’ve looked at, on clay and greensand arable, has the potential to be interesting and useful.
    But it’s no good just strapping pvs onto the back of an ‘unfavourable declining’ SSSI and claim a win-win double gold star, as BSR would wish it. What you can do is demonstrate enlightened corporate environmental responsibility and fund the (cheap) rehabilitation of a national significant ecological resource (one that you actually own), with a morsel of your green profits from elsewhere (nearby even). That’s a win-win.

  13. Andrew Lucas says:

    Just to add a little to Bill’s comments, SSSIs are not designated on a whim. A site of this size will have taken weeks, and more likely months to assess, with careful mapping of the vegetation communities to evaluate the extent and quality, and then checking against other SSSIs in the Area of Search, and against the guidelines for SSSI selection. Ecologists from the statutory agencies often get access to locations not open to the public like this (it’s a lovely perk of the job!). In any case, the agencies also have legal powers to insist on access to land that is either an SSSI, or to land to investigate whether it should be considered as an SSSI. Those powers are only used very rarely indeed in my experience, because of the damage they can cause to owner relations. So nothing funny going on, I’d say.

    Keith – I am with you 100% on the need to move to a low carbon economy. Yes, I have solar panels on my house. So I’d be really interested to hear how from the developers how they intend to conserve the grassland (trust me – 76ha of lowland U4 would definitely excite my interest!!). What management do they have in mind? More specifically, what actions will they take if subsequent monitoring shows the grassland feature to be in unfavourable and declining condition? Mark – you might like to approach them for a guest blog?

  14. John Miles says:

    We need a government like Greece before we get solar panels on all our houses. Our present one needs to give money to developers not the general public so they can BUY their way to winning the next general election.

    • Steve J says:

      Point taken, John, although presumably the government wouldn’t need to give money to anyone – simply require developers to include the provision of solar panels on new build, which would make the costs of solar go down (due to increased demand).
      Maybe this would add a small sum onto the costs of a residential property, though developers might absorb that, and any costs added to retail/business units (all those flat-roofed Tesco’s and Co-ops; new industrial estates) could simply be born by the developer/occupier. We don’t get much sun, but if solar is viable at Rampisham I don’t see why it’s not viable on buildings in Bournemouth.

  15. Dennis Ames says:

    Well what is really interesting is people who live perhaps even hundreds of miles away having such a lot of knowledge and think they are so much more important than local population.
    Locals are almost unanimous in favour of solar farm and some experts with experience of solar farms believe it will not harm the site but anyway to my way of thinking local opinion beats that from hundreds of miles away.
    Strange NE apparently did not recognise the beauty of the site until 2013.
    Whoever said barbed wire will keep sheep in thinks they know more than every sheep farmer I know it is not practical full stop but that is a side issue I did not bring up anyway.
    There is a large scrubby area on the edge of this site where dogs get walked.
    The site has been described as like a ploughed field in 1981 so the relevance of it being so important a site has to be doubtful and of course while Peter Marren is a expert who almost all those commenting on here take word for word what he says so everyone has to think the same he is just as biased in his thinking as another expert who says a solar farm is the best option for this site.
    We do not hear any complaint strangely when really good agricultural land is taken for solar farms and this is just as important with the fast population increase in UK that is happening.
    It is reported by people much closer to the site than I would think any one of those who have commented that the site has been sprayed with a very toxic weedkiller and also fertilised a fact I have not seen contradicted but tried to be played down by saying small areas by someone that is biased.

    • filbert cobb says:

      I have forwarded this to Lord Prescott for a translation

    • Jonathan Wallace says:

      So are you saying that only local people have a right to a view on this, Dennis? Is that a principle you’d apply to all conservation issues? You are pretty forthright in your demands for action about Hen Harrier persecution but how close do you live to the upland areas of northern England? How close to those areas do most of the 20,000 or so people who have signed Mark’s petition live? I daresay there are plenty of ‘local people’ living around grouse shooting areas who see anti raptor persecution people such as you as meddling interferers who should shut up and mind their own effing business. I think those people are wrong and we all have a right to protest and campaign on behalf of hen harriers whether we live in Bowland, Birmingham or by Bow Bells. By the same token we all have a right to protest when a nationally significant area of vegetation is threatened with destruction, whether we are local or not.

    • Miles says:

      Give it up Dennis.

      You know nothing about the site and picking up fag ends left by the developers, their consultants or their friends, does you no favours here or anywhere else.

  16. DBS says:

    Typically there is always a few nutty comments and Dennis you’ve done yourself proud once again. Obviously this is P Marren’s guest blog but in reading Miles King’s piece about Rampisham https://anewnatureblog.wordpress.com/2015/01/15/another-sssi-to-be-trashed-councillors-approve-solar-farm-on-rampisham-down/ I noted a comment from a previous manager at the site when it was managed sympathetically for its grassland wildlife before the rampant solar farm developers driven by govt sweeteners went in an tried to trash the place without planning permission back in 2012. Miles King gives a rather neat potted history of the solar company in the last few years which I would encourage readers to look at. Also Rampisham Down was/is a county wildlife site and has been since 1996 as recorded by the Dorset Wildlife Trust so its been pretty good for a few years at least. Anyway the former site managers comments:
    Ian Jennings says:

    It is an environmental tragedy that WDDC approved the PV park at Rampisham. I was the station manager at Rampisham Transmitting station for a number of years and tremendous efforts were taken to preserve the diverse flora and fauna on site. Outside of the controlled access roads to the antennas the land remained untouched aside from routine topping to preserve its unique character. The site was also home to colonies of dormice which I fear have been destroyed in the decommissioning process along with much of the preserved flora. Decommissioning started without any regard to the due process of planning and as such necessary safeguarding conditions could not be put in place. At the planning meeting Ghillean Prance spoke as a consultant for the applicant and his advice is not impartial and should have been treated such. Natural England have no axe to grind other than to preserve this unique environment. A PV park on this site is inappropriate in any event. By its nature the site is far from any major settlement and much of the power generated will be lost in the power transmission lines between the point of generation and the point of use. PV parks are more suited within or near to settlements. Wind turbines generate significantly more power, and not just during the hours of daylight, their footprint is no greater than the antenna towers on site and the grasslands would be preserved. The site is a high plateau with excellent wind speed and wind farm would be a better renewable use for the site than solar PV.
    In the meantime it is important that all efforts are made to call in this inappropriate planning decision at the highest level.
    So Dennis what do you say to that eh? From a man that knows!

  17. Dennis Ames says:

    The Hen Harrier is different completely as what is happening is illegal and that is all that I would ask for,just muddying the waters.
    In the Rampisham case local opinion should be important as those locals have put up with one of the ugliest sights in the country for nigh on 74 years for the benefit of the population in this country one way or another and the site was probably used in some capacity for the security of UK.
    Whatever happens the ironic part really is that hardly anyone whatever the outcome will get to enjoy what most comments on here seem to think is a really wonderful place.
    Whoever owns it will not have people tramping around it and it is not somewhere so beautiful that people will travel to that area.
    There is another reason also as in all probability the best thing is some form of compromise as for sure if they felt like it the owners could find a way legally to just get any vegetation of any description to die off.
    Miles,there is no way that a few like you should think you have more rights to what you want than local people.
    Ironic part is also if the only way those totally against this solar farm could get electric they would be for it undoubtedly so it is a valuable resource.

    • Rich Facey says:

      To quote Miles, “Give it up Dennis”

    • Jonathan Wallace says:

      Miles has not claimed more rights than anyone else. He is arguing a case for the protection of a piece of land that has a high level, nationally protected status and which is threatened by a development proposal. He is as entitled to do this as anyone else wherever they live. The plants have no voice or vote of their own and depend on people to determine their fate. If we continually allow SSSIs and other protected sites to be destroyed in the name of development we will end up with nothing and no wildlife site can be considered safe wherever it is and whoever lives nearby.

      The meaning of your last sentence is not very clear but if I understand you correctly you seem to be saying that opponents of the development would be in favour of it if it was the only way they could obtain electricity. Well, clearly it is not even remotely the only way they can get electricity and as has been pointed out by several commenters above it is not even the only place where solar energy could be produced.

  18. Dennis Ames says:

    Jonathon and Rich,the point is really those councillors all relatively local who must know all about it have listened to all the arguments put forward by opponents of the solar farm and have in fact thought they were not good enough reasons to go against the solar farm.
    Why people have to think that these councillors representing the local community are wrong defies logic.
    Quite obviously whether people who comment on here like it or not that decision was taken after listening to all objections and decision was in the best interests of West Dorset which is there duty and they were elected as responsible people.
    The value of the site where solar farm is proposed after all the recent activity and all the previous structures and various things connecting them is dubious.
    It is in all probability the only practical use for Rampisham down as no way could a few sheep produce a income of that would be adequate for that land and for certain those wanting to keep it free of solar panels would not contribute any viable amount to its owners.
    Fair play just like everyone who comments on here they want money from investment and labour just the same as everyone and why shouldn’t they.
    Interestingly all those opposed have not said one word about how they could pay anything to keep the solar panels off the site.Per usual.

  19. James says:

    Several comments are on local opinion. I live about two miles from Rampisham and can see the half a dozen or so remaining masts from my window.

    I actually liked the old radio masts. Wherever I went in Dorset and further afield they showed me where home was. Locals were used to tall structures on the site so I personally would not have objected to wind turbines on the site – more energy and less footprint, though probably not a view held by many.

    I was staggered to see the illegal work the developer undertook on the site -“rampant solar farm developers driven by govt sweeteners went in an tried to trash the place without planning permission back in 2012.” (DBS above). They knocked over most of the 30 or so masts and put in the steel piles for many of the rows of panels. They threw about a hundred or so people at the work to try to get the panels up before a reduction in the tariff they would earn. It took a good few weeks for the council to draw a halt to this during which time with a very wet winter and machinery they significantly damaged. They clearly thought they were above planning law with their motives purely profit.

    Yes we need renewable energy but this is not the place for it. This is a large example of an unusual habitat. Its designation should protect it. “Our” local planning committee have failed us.

    • Miles says:

      I have heard a number of other people say how they grew up with the masts and liked them, or didn’t think about them – they were just part of the landscape. I’ve only lived in Dorset 18 years, but I never thought of them as a blot on the landscape, especially after I learnt about the history of the site.

      James – did you put an objection to BSR’s planning application?

      It’s interesting how much effort BSR are putting in to trying to persuade everyone that the local community is fully supporting the development. They have no actual evidence for this support.

      i agree about the wind turbines – it would have been a “like for like” replacement of the masts, and if they had constructed them in the same places as the existing concrete pads there would havqe been very little argument against the development from a conservation perspective (landscape of wildlife). But BSR are solar farmers, not wind farmers.

  20. Keith Wheaton-Green says:

    I fully support the comments on here suggesting PV panels should be put on all suitable roof tops. Just think of the huge numbers of suitable steel barns, commercial sheds and house roofs. The reason those installations are not happening fast enough is the low and declining feed in tariff. The majority party in this government are still listening to lobbying from fossil fuel and big 6 energy supply interests. The last thing they want is democratization of electricity supply. Even new buildings don’t need PV fitting to get planning permission, which I believe is crazy. For anyone wanting to influence BSR, it might be worth considering the governments recent Shared ownership taskforce and resultant protocol to allow the community to take a share of large solar and wind farms. I wonder what the response from nature conservationists would have been to a proposal for a wind farm at Rampisham.

  21. […] Energy Group alongside Giles Frampton from British Solar Renewables. Wheaton-Green commented on Peter Marren’s Rampisham Blog […]

  22. […] Marren has contributed Guest Blogs here before (Where green objectives clash, 26 January 2015; Ashes to ashes, 7 November 2012; Wildlife NGOs, 7 October 2011) and his excellent book Rainbow […]

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