We talk about ‘renewable energy in harmony with nature’ a lot at the RSPB. In fact, it has become the mantra for everything we’re trying to achieve with the energy sector. At its simplest it means the right type of renewable energy in the right place, managed in a way that maximises the benefits to wildlife.
Windfarms like Whitelee and Blacklaw in Scotland are good illustrations; both projects involved large peatland restoration programs alongside the developments that are benefiting wildlife, including birds like curlew and snipe.
These examples aren’t common enough, however, which is why I am delighted that the National Solar Centre has this week published Biodiversity Guidance for Solar developments. We worked on this Guidance with the industry and fellow conservation organisations like Plantlife, Buglife and the National Trust, and are excited about what it could mean for the future of this young industry.
At first glimpse solar farms can look like a sea of panels. But the panels only oversail 25-40% of the land, and even this area is mostly only partly shaded, allowing vegetation to grow. This, coupled with the fact that fertilisers and ploughing are not needed, creates a big opportunity for wildlife. The new guidance sets out how this opportunity can be taken.
Wildflower meadows can be established to help pollinators, ponds created, hedgerows planted and allowed to grow up to provide food and shelter for all sorts of wildlife. Parts of the farm can just be left uncultivated to help rare plants or seeded to provide winter food for ailing farmland birds.
If the industry follows this Guidance and gives nature a home on their solar farms there is no reason why they can’t become a valuable part of the agricultural landscape, helping – in a small but valuable way – to reverse biodiversity declines and combat climate change. Context is important here; the industry’s aspirations amount to something like 60,000 hectares over the coming decade. That’s about half the amount of land used for golf courses, or a tiny fraction of the land needed to grow biofuels.
The solar industry is to be applauded for the enthusiasm with which they have developed this guidance and their aspirations to give nature a home; indeed, other renewable energy sectors could learn from their example. This is particularly true given the rollercoaster ride the industry is being given by the Government, who have recently vowed to curb their growth, and whose relentless focus on supporting only the cheapest energy threatens to undermine schemes that go the extra mile to ensure they are an asset to the countryside.
In the end, renewable energy in harmony with nature will not always be the cheapest energy source in pure monetary terms. That’s as true for solar as it is for wind, wave and tidal power. But these developments can enhance our countryside and communities, and are essential if we are to reverse the loss of biodiversity. Surely that’s worth paying a little extra for.
Guest post by Richard Bradbury, RSPB Centre for Conservation Science
Recently, I’ve been involved in a great collaboration between partners from across the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI). Led by the British Trust for Ornithology, the first findings of the project have just been published online here in the journal Global Change Biology. The recent IPCC report clearly shows that climate change is having wide-ranging impacts on wildlife. In this paper, we were interested to know exactly how climate change might be affecting species –is it primarily through direct effects on species (eg succumbing to extreme cold, drought or heat) or is it more complicated than that? The answer to this question will be really important for figuring out how we might try to help species to adapt.
To find out, the team reviewed almost 150 published studies of climatic impacts on natural populations. Although you might expect that most species are responding directly to climatic changes, the majority of impacts of climate change actually occur through altered interactions between species within an ecosystem. One caveat to the result is that the vast majority of the information comes from the temperate and polar zones. There is a pronounced lack of information from the tropics, where most species’ occur – a real wake-up call for more climate impacts monitoring and research in these areas.
Each species shares an ecosystem with other species, some of which it might eat, and others that might eat or compete with it. It appears that it is changes to the populations or activity of these other species which caused many of the impacts observed. The higher up the food chain, the more likely that climate change had its impact via these indirect mechanisms, rather than a more direct impact of, for instance, changed temperature or extreme rainfall events.
For example, Arctic fox populations have been affected not only by expanding red fox populations but also by declining lemming populations, the latter being linked to changes in snow cover.
Arctic Fox. By Algkalv (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
In the UK, the golden plover is affected because hotter, drier conditions dry out the peat in which the larvae of its cranefly prey live, killing them and therefore reducing the food supply for the plover chicks. Of course, that counts as a direct effect on the craneflies!
Golden plover in the breeding season. By Chris Gomersall (RSPB images)
A cranefly – key food for golden plover and many other species of birds. Their larvae line in the ground and can die in dry conditions. By Matthew Carroll.
So, how does this help in the fight to help species adapt to the changes that are already in the system because of climate change? Well, conservation action already includes managing interactions between species, such as controlling invasive species or reducing predation risk, so we already have some of the conservation tools that we are going to need. This gives hope that we can help vulnerable species to adapt to some of the effects of climate change. For example, in the UK uplands, we can restore degraded peatland habitats to boost cranefly populations, and increase their resilience to climate change, and so maintaining food for golden plovers. The long term success of these conservation responses will be linked to our efforts to contain climate change through reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and so limit its impacts. And as climate change increases the conservation effort required, we’ll need appropriate conservation funding to rise to the challenge.
So saving nature in a changing climate will need a big collaborative effort, across adaptation and mitigation, and across science, conservation, politics and society. The continued growth of the CCI, and the recent launch of the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, will make an important contribution to this effort - it’s a really exciting time to be a scientist at RSPB!
Guest post by Dr Martin Warren, Chief Executive of Butterfly Conservation
The latest report from the IPCC concludes that we are facing a big change in world’s climate that will have a huge impact on humans and wildlife alike.
Data gathered by Butterfly Conservation shows that butterflies are already being strongly affected by climate change. More than one-quarter of UK species are spreading north, with butterflies like the Comma moving at 10km per year.
This is part of a major shift of butterfly populations across Europe that has been going on for at least 20 years. Species have been spreading northwards across Europe and several reports have shown that colonies have shifted uphill.
The problem is that even this pace of change is not keeping up with the warming climate, so butterflies are lagging behind. Many species are becoming threatened as they cannot move to keep pace with climate change now that their habitats are so small and fragmented.
A Climatic Risk Atlas of European butterflies shows that under the extreme scenario of a 4C rise, which is now looking more likely, one quarter of Europe’s butterflies will lose 95% of their current range, leading to a potentially huge spate of extinctions.
The IPCC and recent Met Office reports conclude that there will be more extreme weather events in the future, with heavy rains and droughts becoming more frequent. This could have a devastating effect on butterflies and local extinction events will become more frequent.
Climate change will add to the already extreme problems facing butterflies and other insects. Populations are already dwindling rapidly due to habitat loss, which makes them even more vulnerable to a changing climate. We can expect an increasing number of local extinctions, from which our specialist species will never recover. But, the more generalist species, whose habitats are more widespread, may well benefit and spread into new areas.
The threat from climate change gives fresh urgency to Butterfly Conservation’s strategy of conserving species at a landscape scale, making existing habitats bigger, better managed and better connected. A landmark report published in 2012 shows that this approach is beginning to reverse the decline of several threatened species.
We need to make populations far more resilient and better able to respond to climate change. That can only be done by conserving species at a landscape scale. Butterflies are useful barometers of how other wildlife might be affected, so these solutions will undoubtedly benefit a wide range of other wildlife groups.