The other day, I had an anguished phone call from a landowning neighbour. The cause of his distress related to the Solar Park on his land – the Hill End Solar Array to give it its formal title. His specific concern was the broad-brush application of herbicides to which the entire site had just been subjected. Bear in mind this was late April – just as the flowering season for the Solar Park’s evolving meadow was beginning. Why can’t a landowner prevent this from happening, you might ask? Read on and all will become apparent. As will flaws in the green credentials with which Solar Parks and Energy Companies seek to adorn themselves – the greenwash they use to soften public, government and investors’ perceptions.

Firstly, let’s set the scene. The landowner in question is called James Bromhead, and his estate – Hill End – provides an example of how contemporary land use, conservation and biodiversity enhancement can be harmonious, and are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The empathy that he has for his land and its wildlife is an example that other farming landowners in the area would do well to follow. The estate comprises a mix of commercially-farmed land and areas of woodland, some of which are designated as Sites of Importance for Nature Conservation. James has an enlightened and inclusive attitude towards the wildlife over which he is guardian, while maintaining a commercial eye on operations that ensures the estate remains viable financially. A balancing act, in other words.

Among its highlights, the estate’s woodlands boast some of the best displays of Bluebells in north Hampshire. Photo ©Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd

For those unfamiliar with the way the solar park system works, it might help to have a brief introduction. Having come to an agreement with a landowner, a solar park company submits a planning application to the relevant local authority. If the application is granted, the company leases the land from the landowner for a lengthy period (often between 25 and 40 years). The landowner receives a guaranteed annual income for the duration of the project and the solar park company owns, and is responsible for, the infrastructure. On signing a contract, the landowner forfeits control over management of the leased land, and has no right of access.

James Bromhead inspecting the consequences of herbicide spraying on Hill End Solar Array on 29 April 2022, the ultimate responsibility for which resides with Octopus Energy. James told me that the sight of the battlefield botanical fallen felt like a stab to the heart. Had the Common Knapweed plant in the foreground not been sprayed it would have gone on to produce a succession of flowers (bottom left). These would have served as important nectar sources for insects throughout the summer months.
Photos ©Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd

In the case of the Hill End Solar Array, the local authority is Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council. So James tells me, the owner of the Solar Park infrastructure is Octopus Energy (their website trumpets a £2.4 billion annual revenue), which is part of the Octopus Group; ultimately they shoulder responsibility for the running of the Solar Park. However, in practice there are a series of sub-contracting relationships. James tells me that Octopus Energy use an outfit called Quantas Energy Ltd as ‘Asset Managers’ who then use the services of a company called PSH Operations as ‘Operations Managers’. In turn, they use sub-contractors for day-to-day operations.

James’ dismay was heightened because something similar had happened in the summer of 2021. He complained at the time and received assurances from the Solar Park’s operators that this would not happen again. However, it transpired that these were empty promises, and that history was repeating itself. For James, this was the final straw because the relationship between landowner and solar park owner had been fraught from the start. More about that later in the story.

The scene of desolation from summer 2021: on the left, unsprayed meadow restoration in progress outside the Hill End Solar Array; on the right, the scene of devastation after operatives, for whom Octopus Energy is ultimately responsible, had sprayed the developing meadow flowers with herbicide inside the Solar Park. Photos ©James Bromhead

Stepping back a pace, although you may choose to ignore or overlook this fact, there is an environmental downside to all forms of energy production. So-called green energy is just energy where the carbon consumption associated with its production is less than if fossil fuels were involved. Green energy always comes with an environmental cost. For example, there is the mining and extraction of key elements needed for solar panels to function, and their transportation across the globe; the energy required for the panels’ fabrication; the construction of the Solar Park site; and the subsequent dismantling of park infrastructure at the end of its life.

Now it seems you can add to the balance sheet the harmful effects associated with the day-to-day running and management of the land on which the panels sit. The tragedy is that this latter impact is entirely avoidable. The reality sits in stark contrast to the impression created by Solar Park companies of an industry in harmony with nature. To get a sense of what I mean, take a look at a selection of the sector’s websites or brochures and you will begin to see themes emerging, ones that are easiest to detect by looking at the photographs chosen by their public relations teams.

Firstly, to soften the visual blow to the untutored eye, you will typically find an image of solar panels set amidst a haze of colourful flowers. Next, to address the concerns of anyone with a modicum of interest in biodiversity, there will be a photo of a bumblebee or hoverfly on a flower. Here, the inference is that ‘pollinating insects’ are being considered, without any meaningful information being supplied about which species are likely to be the beneficiaries. Lastly, to appeal to the commercial instincts of landowners, there will usually be a bucolic scene showing sheep peacefully grazing beside solar panels. Overall, the implication is that in terms of biodiversity and commercial activity, you can have your cake and eat it.

Before we scrutinise these images, it is worth looking at grassland and meadows in more detail. In the context of England, and north Hampshire in particular, grassland is a manmade habitat and one that needs some form of management to remain in that state. Historically, cutting and grazing were the means by which this was achieved, the former as a way of producing hay. And it is also worth defining what is meant by ‘biodiversity’, the buzzword that is bandied around so freely these days. On the grand scale it is the variety of life on earth. At the local level, its significance lies in it being a measure of the number of native species a given area harbours. The more stable, complex and healthy the habitat, the more native species it will support.

Meadows that have never been sprayed or seeded have the greatest biodiversity and are described by ecologists as ‘unimproved’. Nowadays, you could be forgiven for thinking you can create this sort of habitat overnight. However, although you can certainly scatter a few seeds, you cannot plant a meadow. It is a habitat as complex as any other, one that takes time to evolve and mature. And you certainly cannot ‘plant’ the myriad of invertebrates and complex web of life that makes for truly wildlife-rich grassland. Colonisation by these species can only come from elsewhere, and over time. Generally speaking, the older the unimproved meadow, the greater its biodiversity and the best examples in England are centuries old. The art of meadow creation in the twenty-first century requires patience and a lack of intervention, other than periodic cutting perhaps.

Our ancestors were not conservationists but the biodiversity riches that linger in unimproved grassland in England is an unintended consequence of their relatively low-impact use of the land in centuries past. The scale of the loss of unimproved grassland is as staggering as it is depressing. As far back as 1987, the conservation world was informed that 97% of wildlife-rich unimproved grassland in England and Wales had been lost between 1930 and 1984 (R.M. Fuller, 1987. The changing extent of conservation interest of lowland grassland in England and Wales: A review of grassland surveys 1930-1984. Biological Conservation 40: 281-300). The ‘green fields’ that surround us today are mostly ‘improved’ for agriculture, seeded and sprayed and of little value to native grassland wildlife.

In a personal effort to offset the loss and degradation of meadow habitats in the neighbourhood, I embarked on a project of my own in my garden. Ten years on and I have more than 100 species of native wildflowers in my miniature meadow. In addition, all the species of grassland butterfly that you could expect to breed in this part of north Hampshire do so in my small plot of land. Imagine the good that could be done by scaling up my efforts to the size of a Solar Park. Photo ©Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd

It seems that meadow habitats need all the help they can get and this sentiment is perhaps what Solar Park companies want to tap into. In theory, they could help and make a difference. However, in practice, the reality appears to be different, once any initial environmentally-compliant stage of the development has been completed. The application of agrichemicals is perhaps the most extreme example of this approach, one that will hinder the development of any meadow-in-the-making, if not stop it in its tracks.

Returning to the subject of a typical Solar Park or Energy Company website, let us scrutinise the previously mentioned photographs in turn. A typical floral image will show a sea of Poppies, perhaps with additional Cornflowers to add visual counterpoint. In agricultural terms these are annual species associated with disturbed arable ground and the sort of thing commercial farmers often want to be rid of. They provide a one-year botanical conjuring trick to fool the unwary into thinking something meaningful has been created, and they have no place in an undisturbed meadow or in grassland biodiversity enhancement. There may well be biennial or perennial species included in any seed mix applied to the land but the truth is that meaningful meadow colonisation will only occur from any nearby remnants of good-quality grassland, and from what remains of the soil’s seedbank.

Hoverflies are sometimes cited by Green Energy companies as potential ‘pollinating insect’ beneficiaries of their operations in a generalised and throw-way greenwash manner. As adults, species such as this Common Drone-fly (left) are certainly unwitting pollinators of flowers, although their true interest lies in the nectar on offer. However, if you want to benefit hoverflies in a meaningful way you need to factor in the needs of their larvae, which are almost as varied as the 250 or so species that occur in the UK. Some live in damp mud and aquatic environments, and that of the Common Drone-fly (top right) can tolerate unspeakably filthy water so long as its breathing tube can reach air. Others, such as the larva of the Marmalade Hoverfly (bottom right) are active terrestrial predators, and particularly partial to aphids. ©Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd

Let us move on to the subject of ‘pollinating insects’. Notwithstanding the fact that they are just the tip of the iceberg in terms of a meadow’s invertebrate diversity, it is stating the obvious to say that they need flowers to satisfy their needs. As an aside, apart from bees, some species of which do collect pollen, most insects are only interested in nectar. This is the evolutionary ‘bribe’ that underpins the relationship between many insects and plants. It ensures that insects inadvertently transport pollen from one flower to another and enable cross-fertilisation. Spray your prospective meadow with herbicides that either kill plants, or prevent them from flowering, and you destroy any insect-related ecological benefits at a stroke, and render a Solar Park brochure’s aspirational greenwash twaddle meaningless.

As a further aside, it is interesting to note that some plants with agricultural pariah status – Marsh Thistle (left) and Creeping Thistle (right) for example – are extremely beneficial to nectar-seeking insects at the height of summer. There’s a biodiversity conundrum for conservation-leaning landowners and solar park managers to ponder. Photos ©Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd

Moving on to the third photograph – the one showing grazing sheep. The potential for conflict between that use of the land, and benefits to butterflies, dispels any notion that you can have your environmental cake and eat it.  Returning to the idea of unintended consequences, if you graze Solar Park grassland intensively with sheep you will almost certainly destroy the life-cycles of many meadow species of butterfly. For example, the caterpillars of the Ringlet and Meadow Brown spend the winter months among tussocks of grasses such as Yorkshire-fog and Red Fescue, while those of the Large Skipper bind the leaves of Cocks-foot together with silk for hibernation dens. Come the spring, and they feed on the shooting grass leaves. Nibble these grasses to within an inch of their lives and you will most likely kill the caterpillars and hence the life-cycle. As individual adults, these butterflies are lucky to live longer than a week, and once females have laid their eggs, their job is done. By contrast, the caterpillar stage lasts more than 250 days.

Adults and caterpillars of two meadow butterflies: Ringlet (left) and Meadow Brown (right). If you want to manage the land for the benefit of butterflies such as these, you must prioritise the needs of the larval stage in the life cycle, specifically their foodplants, rather than those of the adults. ©Paul Sterry/Nature Photographers Ltd

At the start of the Hill End Solar Array project, James told me he had been looking forward to the collateral benefits of a meadow, and its associated wildlife, evolving and maturing beneath the panels over the years that followed. However, that was not to be the case. So he tells me, for the first three years, what should have been a wonderful, flowery meadow-in-the-making was mown several times a year to within an inch of its life. This management regime ensured that biodiversity gains were virtually non-existent. He badgered the owners and eventually the mowing ceased, only to be replaced by sprays. So, in stark terms, physical abuse of the prospective meadow was replaced by chemical abuse.

What is the answer you may ask? If benefitting meadow wildlife is your goal, do not attempt to ‘control’ the grassland within a Solar Park complex but allow it to flourish. The way to achieve this is to treat it like a hay meadow and cut the vegetation annually once flowers have set seed, and with cutters set a foot from ground level rather than an inch. From talking to James and others, the consensus seems to be that Solar Park companies cannot be relied upon to police themselves. In reality, they are free to do what they want with the land they lease.

Another thing to bear in mind is that, in planning terms, Solar Parks are classed as an agricultural land use. James reminded me that if he adopted his Solar Park manager’s cavalier approach when it came to the rest of his farm, the full force of DEFRA and Natural England would soon descend upon him. In his opinion, it is high time that government investigated the Solar Energy sector’s environmental track record and introduced legislation that regulated their activities with the same vigour and scrutiny that it does conventional farming. As least then the reality might match the greenwash.

The advice to would-be Solar Park hosts with an environmental conscience, and to planning authorities with legal obligations, is to not be taken in by the greenwash. Impose meaningful and enforceable restrictions that might include:

  • Dividing future Solar Parks in to small parcels so as not to destroy environmental connectivity.
  • Enhancing environmental connectivity through an obligation to plant and maintain hedgerows, and create ditches and ponds. In other words, work with the local environment rather than against it.
  • Enforcing grassland management policies within the Solar Park complexes that benefit native biodiversity in a meaningful and measurable way.
  • Obliging Solar Park companies to engage with, and pay for, independent monitoring of environmental progress. That could mean working with, for example, the Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland.

Lastly, because a Solar Park is a classed as agricultural land use for planning purposes, there is a requirement that at the end of its life the land is returned to its former land use. This has the potential to mean that, at a stroke, any meaningful benefits for wildlife achieved during its life are destroyed. To avoid this happening, the flaw in the plan needs to be addressed.

To an impartial observer like myself, the Solar Park industry looks like a sector that wants to wash its unacceptable environmental face with greenwash in order to assuage any misgivings that councils and locals might have. If James’ experience is anything to go by, once a park has been established, it looks like these organisations revert to industrial type. They are a business and no greener than any other, with a responsibility to shareholders to minimise costs, such as environmental outlays, and maximise profits. Talking of shareholders, many Energy Companies attempt to appeal to investors with an environmental conscience through Ethical or Sustainable trading status. It might be an idea if existing and potential investors did their homework and decided for themselves just how ‘Ethical’ or ‘Sustainable’ such investments really are.

Out of interest, I took a look at the Octopus Energy website page ‘What makes us so green’. I was intrigued to learn that ‘…along with the companies and people that are trying to do good by the planet, there’s also some who ‘greenwash’…sowing of seeds of confusion to make themselves seem greener than they really are…We can proudly say that Octopus Energy has no part in that…’

Really? I am not sure the weed-sprayed wildflowers and nectar-starved pollinating insects on the Hill End Solar Array would agree.