Any time I write about solar farms promoting increased biodiversity, somebody somewhere will call BS. However, a new study from the UK's Solar Trade Association (yes, we should take it with a pinch of salt!), reported on over at Cleantechnica, adds weight to the argument that solar farms can be a net positive for the environment—even before you factor in the benefits of emissions savings.
Looking at 11 solar farms across the UK, and comparing those farms to adjacent plots of land on the same farms that were under similar management practices prior to solar installation, researchers found a significant increase in bird diversity, broadleaf plant diversity, wildflowers and many other species. This benefit held up both for solar farms that were specifically managed with biodiversity benefits in mind (for example, seeding the surrounding area with wildflowers)—but there was also an increase in biodiversity on solar farms that were periodically grazed.
Encouragingly, the study found that solar farms were particularly beneficial for rare and threatened bird species:"When weighting bird species according to their conservation status, solar farms scored significantly higher
in terms of bird diversity and abundance, indicating their importance for declining bird species. The decline
of many of these species has been attributed to intensification of agricultural practices. Solar farms with
a focus on wildlife management tend towards limited use of pesticides, lower livestock stocking densities
and the re-establishment of field margins, which would benefit many of these bird species."
Exactly why solar farms are of benefit is probably due to a combination of factors, say researchers. The switch from monocultural arable land to more diverse plant species will no doubt help biodiversity, as will the addition of shaded areas and structures for perching/nesting. And because grazing among solar farms is a more complex operation, the reduced stocking density and frequency of grazing will help to encourage a broader array of plants and species that rely on them.
Unsurprisingly, those farms that were being actively managed for wildlife benefits showed the biggest benefit to wildlife. (Duh!) And that may add credence to some critics who argue that turning land into nature reserves would be more beneficial than covering it in solar panels—but that kind of misses the point. Farmers are in the business of making money from their land. And installing a solar farm can be a very effective way of doing just that, while also creating space for wildlife too.
That's not to say that dedicated wildlife sanctuaries are worthless. But solar farms being managed for biodiversity benefits are a great way to increase the amount of land we give over to nature, while also combating emissions and reducing the threat that climate change poses to every single species on this planet.