In this blog Rebecca Bell, our senior policy officer for climate and energy, takes us through how strategic spatial planning, using a variety of maps, could be better used for Scotland’s long term development projects.
Mapping for the future
Wind turbines - where to put them? How does Scotland decide whether an area of land is best used for nature conservation, or generating energy, or growing food?
RSPB Scotland thinks this is something that government can – and should – do up front: identify suitable sites, and direct developers to those. It’s already done with housing, so why not with other forms of development?
Strategic spatial planning, as this is known, saves money, and helps good decisions get made quickly. It makes sure that the main issues are taken into account early in the process – and long before a planning application falls into the laps of local councillors.
RSPB has proven that it can be done with renewable energy, through our 2050 Energy Vision: we worked out which parts of the UK are suitable for wind energy, solar farms, biomass planting and tidal technology using data such as wind speed, solar radiation, ground conditions and wave heights. This gave us an idea of where it would be technically possible to put renewables and generate electricity efficiently.
Of course, this doesn’t take into account the fact that there may already be roads and houses and other forms of development in these areas; nor that some of this land and sea may be already designated as a protected site for nature and so be unsuitable for development. So our next step was to overlay the maps with maps of all these physical barriers, and of areas that would be safeguarded from development by existing government policy: such as shipping routes, Ministry of Defence areas and national scenic areas.
That narrows the maps down to sites that could actually be built on - but what about wildlife? Renewable energy, like many forms of development and land use change, can disturb, displace or even kill wildlife, so it’s important to keep development away from species that are most at risk. So the next stage was to map where these species are, and to overlay that onto the maps for each technology.
These maps show the potential for solar farms in the UK:
A: Resource availability: nearly all of the UK gets enough sunlight to generate electricity
B: Physical constraints: roads, houses, and other existing development that mean there is no space for solar panels
C: Policy constraints: areas such as MOD land, National Scenic Areas, buffer zones around settlements – where development might be physically possible, but wouldn’t be supported by planning policy
D: Ecological sensitivities: areas of protected habitat, or where populations of birds and other species would be harmed by the development of solar farms. Once all of these constraints have been taken into account, the areas of green on the map are the places where solar farms could probably be developed with low ecological risk.
The result is a set of high-level maps which indicate areas which are more likely and less likely to be suitable for renewable energy development. They are not completely prescriptive and are not a substitute for up-to-date, site specific data but what they do is to give an indication of the likely sensitivity of an area to renewable energy development.
The Scottish Government could use these maps to help decide where wind farms, solar farms, biomass plantations and tidal electricity schemes should go. Making these decisions at a national level (with proper consultation and engagement with people and interests that are likely to be affected) would give communities and developers more opportunity to participate at an early stage and more certainty about where renewable energy would be acceptable. The challenges of climate change for people and wildlife are only becoming greater, and as many of Scotland’s less problematic renewables sites become developed there need to be new ways to help reduce conflict and progress renewables in the most sustainable locations. These maps are a crucial part of meeting these challenges.
You can find out more about our mapping work in our technical report – including the environmental risks associated with each renewable technology and the particular species that are affected.
This is the fourth post in a six part blog series about rare insects in the Cairngorms. A new project launched this year to save six endangered invertebrates in the north of Scotland and project officer Gabrielle Flinn will take a closer look at one of these species each month. This time, it's the turn of the dark bordered beauty moth. The Rare Invertebrates in the Cairngorms project is a partnership involving RSPB Scotland, the Cairngorms National Park Authority (CNPA), Buglife Scotland, Butterfly Conservation Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).
Aspen suckers graze our knees and ankles as Pete Moore from RSPB Scotland Insh Marshes reserve explains we are about to walk through the most important site for the moth, dark bordered beauty (Epione vespertaria), in Scotland.
Just as our eyes scan the low growing young Aspen, the moth’s food plant, a male makes a timely appearance, fluttering up from the vegetation to say hello before quickly flying back to the safety of the undergrowth. The moth is well camouflaged, looking very much like a yellowing leaf, and is at first hard to spot.
Once the Rare Invertebrates in the Cairngorms (RIC) volunteers spot the individual, however, there is a ripple of excitement and cameras come out to capture this moment of entomological elation.
RIC volunteers observe a moth in wonder during DBB training
The dark bordered beauty, is named literally (as is the habit of lepidopterists), and bears a thick dark border along the edge of its yellow-orange wings whilst also being strikingly beautiful. In Scotland, the caterpillars feed on the leaves of young aspen suckers whilst those south of the border have a preference for creeping willow.
Caterpillars hatch in May after overwintering as eggs, pupate into adults in July and can be found flying into August. Males, who are darker in appearance are the most likely to be seen as they are more mobile than the females who are more likely to stay very close to where they hatch.
Due to a loss of native woodland, the increase of grazers and a reduction in diversity within forests (meaning there are less open glades and trees which are all of a similar age) over the decades, this moth has suffered as the niche it has evolved to occupy has dramatically reduced.
As part of the RIC project, we will be trying to find new sites of suckering aspen were this moth may have not yet been discovered and we will be working with land owners to try and help create better habitat for the moth across the National Park.
Enjoy this blog? Check out the previous three in the series on the northern silver stilleto fly, shining guest ant and Kentish glory moth.
This month we’ve been focusing on corncrakes and the work being done to help these secretive birds in Scotland. Here Chris Bailey, RSPB Scotland’s advisory manager, will cover the final part of the story not yet told; the work of our own nature reserves and staff in supporting corncrake conservation.
Corncrakes on reserves
In Scotland, many of our iconic reserves on the Inner and Outer Herbidean Islands, including Coll, Oronsay, Loch Gruinart on Islay and Balranald, North Uist are managed in a corncrake friendly way that looks to not only maintain but also increase their numbers, and help turn around the fortunes of these birds. This is done alongside our work for many other conservation priority species and habitats including waders and farmland birds such as curlews and lapwings, and wintering geese.
On these reserves, we’ve put into practice the solutions for helping corncrake, identified by our research, in our long-term management plans. The area of spring and autumn cover for corncrakes, so vital for them find food and being protected from predators, has been increased by fencing off the margins and corners of hay and silage meadows and establishing stands of suitable vegetation. Areas of hay, silage and autumn grazed pasture have been increased. Hay and silage mowing has been delayed until August and uses corncrake friendly management, giving the birds a better chance to successfully raise their chicks. A lot of this management has been undertaken with the support of the agri-environment applications.
Our reserve staff monitor the populations annually, both on and off the reserves, so we are able to assess the effectiveness of this management and see how corncrakes are doing year on year. This has shown that numbers have increased in-line with changes in the wider countryside and that our reserves hold a significant proportion of the national population; 16 per cent in 2016. Staff are also involved in advisory work helping crofters and landowners into agri-environment agreements.
The other reason to celebrate the success of our reserves is that corncrake conservation is done alongside commercial farming. On Islay, we manage an in-house operation of 200 cows and 200 sheep at Loch Gruinart, 120 cows and 600 ewes at the Oa, and on Oronsay 50 cows and 400 sheep. All these reserves are managed for conservation but also to be efficient and profitable. The cattle are reared for beef production and we have won national show awards for the quality of our livestock. You can find out more about this here.
Work is always on-going to improve the reserves to maintain and improve the quality of the habitat for corncrakes. On Coll, this year seven patches of corncrake early cover areas were identified for improvement. This involved cultivation and re-seeding with Phacelia for bees this year and reed canary grass for next year’s corncrake cover. Whilst at Onziebust, Eligsay in Orkney we are undertaking major improvements to the farm infrastructure and the habitats with the aim of encouraging corncrake back to the island.
It’s only through such continuous effort every year that corncrakes have been brought back from the brink they were teetering on in the early 1990s and partnership working has been crucial to this. These secretive birds are still a red list species but they have a far better outlook now thanks to the combination of research, policy work, crofter support and reserve work that have been going on for the last 25 years, and it’s something we’re proud to be a part of.
If you’ve missed any of our previous three blogs why not catch up on our introduction to these rare, shy birds, the research that’s gone into their conservation measures, and the vital role that crofters have played in helping corncrakes. You can find out more too in this month's RSPB podcast.