By Maya Evans

Earlier this month the National Biodiversity Network released its shocking 2019 State of Nature report. How many of us realised that one in seven of 8,400 UK species (including plants, insects and fungi) are at risk of being completely lost, largely due to intensive farming?

Improving biodiversity, especially in the country park, has been a particular success story for Hasting Borough Council in recent years. Carefully considered management, such as bringing in heavy horses to bruise bracken and graze back gorse in Warren Glen, has allowed other plants to grow and thrive, heralding an exciting increase of maritime-acid grassland, heath and heather, which in turn attracts more insects; the recent discovery of the sickle-bearing bush-cricket is an example of this. 

The three potential solar panel sites within the country park which are currently under consultation are, to an extent, already ‘developed’, in that they have, for a considerable time, been used for farming purposes such as sheep-grazing. In fact, much of the country park is used for farming. At present, as well as grazing sheep and cows, the country park also contains arable fields where crops such as barley are grown, and it is these bits of land which are currently under consultation as potential sites for solar panel arrays. No ancient woodland will be cleared. We are not talking about Warren Glen or Ecclesbourne Glen. 

The proposed sites are entirely on existing farmland and an area known as ‘The Helipad’. It is not protected land. They are close to a Site of Special Scientific Interest, but that does not mean that land adjoining cannot be used for farming. Our country park already contains a populated village as well as a working farm.

Hastings Borough councillors examining a proposed solar site

There has been much talk and concern around the issue of solar panels in the country park, words such as “industrialize”, “reckless” and “inconsistent” have abounded. Concern is understandable, the country park is one of the best assets within Hastings, it has unique habitats and species, it includes an SSSI and is classified as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). It’s something which should be valued and protected.

As the Council’s lead on climate change, biodiversity and sustainable development, I have made a point of listening to all points of view, from residents to experts and also Friends of the Country Park.

It is recognized by climate scientists that solar panels are a key solution to clean energy generation. Further, many studies reveal that when farmland is converted to carefully managed solar farms – with re-seeded wildflower meadows, field margins, and open areas for nesting birds – they can actually increase biodiversity. 

This is something I want to see happen if we do go ahead with solar panels on farmland within the Country Park. 

I recognize that some people oppose the visual aspects of solar panels, though perhaps we humans need to change our perception of what is beautiful. In my view, we should try to see a certain beauty in clean renewable energy that combats carbon emissions, especially when situated in a field with biodiversity-enhancing wildflowers, insects and birds.

Currently Hastings Borough Council have spent less than £10,000 on feasibility studies which include looking at the impacts on ecology, heritage, visual impact, and classification of agricultural land. The council awaits a report from Natural England, which will also contain an important impact assessment.  This report will be key in making a final decision.

I genuinely care about the country park, the amazing diversity of invertebrates and the growing community of incredible rare species. Protecting biodiversity goes hand in hand with tackling climate change. Therefore, even before consultation reports have been returned to council for a final decision, I am laying down red lines:

• If we have solar panels, they must be part of a managed biodiverse landscape with re-seeded wildflowers, field margins and open spaces.

• Any potential mounted arrays cannot have concrete foundations; it must be possible to easily remove them in the future, while having an absolute minimum impact on soil.

• No chemical fluids can be used for the cleaning of the arrays, only iodized water.

If these lines are not met, I will be the first to oppose all further plans.

Maya Evans is Labour councillor for Hollington ward on Hastings Borough Council and was earlier this year appointed cabinet member for climate change, biodiversity and sustainable development.

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