Solar arrays in Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve

By Michael Moor,
Chair, The Friends of Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve

I am writing this open letter in response to your piece in Hastings Independent Press of 18 October about the Council’s proposal to set up 10 acres of solar arrays in the Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve.

We understand your wish to try to draw some red lines to mitigate the conflict between the Council’s aim of securing income from a solar installation and the environmental damage to a sensitive ecosystem. However, some of the arguments behind those red lines are open to challenge.

Your article’s headline, “Solar Panels Bring Clean Energy and Biodiversity”, suggests solar panels bring biodiversity as a matter of course. Research only suggests that biodiversity might increase under solar arrays relative to fields which are farmed with a single crop, for example barley or a limited range of grasses.  

This research does not mean biodiversity would increase in the fields adjoining the Fairlight Glen SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) and the field at North’s Seat which are being considered by the Council for ground mounted solar arrays. As currently pasture these fields absorb carbon and provide a habitat or food for flora and fauna. It is disingenuous for you to argue that these fields are already “developed”, and are not greenfield sites. The construction of solar arrays in these fields would result in the disturbance of the soil structure, reduce the amount of carbon absorbed, and reduce biodiversity.

It is inevitable that solar panels will have a shading effect on the ground beneath them, reducing total photosynthesis, the process by which carbon dioxide is absorbed by plants, and biodiversity. In the initial report to the Council’s Cabinet in January, an estimate was made of the carbon supposedly saved by installing solar panels. The Council appears not yet to have calculated the carbon cost of making, transporting, installing, managing and eventually decommissioning solar arrays, as well as the continuing reduction in carbon absorbed by pasture. The result of this calculation would necessarily indicate a substantial discount from the initial guess at carbon saved.

One of your red lines is that the fields be managed in part with reseeded wildflowers. However, their creation and management also have environmental implications. To achieve any substantial biodiversity improvements, the soil across the whole fields would have to be disturbed. These sites comprise improved pasture, so simply seeding with a wildflower mix without doing anything else is unlikely to be successful. The wildflowers one might want are unlikely to establish well because these fields are nutrient-rich and there would be too much competition. Good soil preparation (with removal of topsoil if necessary) is actually regarded as key to re-creation of wildflower meadows. 

If wildflower re-seeding with non-local provenance or non-native species is envisaged   there may also be issues with doing this close to the Fairlight Glen SSSI. In addition, the net carbon input for establishing and managing wildflower meadows would need to be factored into the Council’s estimate for carbon saved from the installation of solar arrays. 

We welcome that you are thinking about the foundations and cleaning methods of solar panels but it is optimistic to think that red lines against the use of concrete foundations and chemical cleaning fluids could be sustained in practice. Concrete is the foundation of choice for installing solar panels because they provide a more stable structure.  And its installation inevitably causes substantial damage to soil structure and reduces the absorption from the atmosphere of carbon dioxide. 

We agree that it is sensible to try to stipulate that no chemical cleaning fluids should be used for solar arrays, particularly if they might run downhill into the SSSI site. But anecdotal evidence from elsewhere in the country indicates that, irrespective of a cleaning contract’s conditions, contractors’ resort to such fluids when faced with a difficult cleaning task, for example removing bird faeces from solar panels. It would be difficult to ensure compliance with a contractual condition that would require regular inspection and supervision.

You say that “much of the Country Park is used for farming”. This implies that where in the Nature Reserve farming takes place biodiversity conservation is secondary. This is contrary to the Council’s management plan for the area.  Farming is carried on in the Country Park in a manner wholly consistent with the overall purpose of the Nature Reserve. 

The proposed sites for solar arrays fall within a statutorily protected Local Nature Reserve, within SSSI Impact Risk Zones and an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. These designations imply a considerable degree of environmental protection. The High Weald Coast, of which the Country Park is a substantial part, is objectively characterised by the County Council as a largely unspoilt and tranquil landscape with few intrusive features, not a matter of perception as you suggested in your article.

In conclusion, the Country Park is managed to conserve and enhance biodiversity, and that farming methods may be used is integral to promoting its biodiversity. The Country Park is not designated ‘Hastings Country Park Nature Reserve’ for nothing.  Nature has to come first.  

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