Just how safe are our designated sites?

Many of our most precious wildlife sites have legal protections, but what does this mean in practice?

Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) are protected areas that are designated since they represent some of the best examples of wildlife or geological sites in the British Isles. Such sites are protected by law to preserve their special qualities, whatever they might be.

Therefore you can image our utter dismay to hear that on Friday 16th January West Dorset District Council granted planning permission to create a large solar farm on Rampisham Down in west Dorset.

Rampisham Down SSSI is a large site covering 72 ha (187 acres) and is situated in the heart of a legally protected landscape in west Dorset. It is designated because it is one of the largest expanses of lowland acid grassland remaining in England and is home to an incredibly rare grouping of plants and fungi, such as lousewort, eyebright and waxcap fungi. The site also supports other species including adder and a healthy population of breeding skylark.

Lousewort flowers

© Jon Oakley

Lousewort are among the flower species that can be found on Rampisham Down SSSI

Despite strong objections from numerous individuals and organisations, including our colleagues at Dorset Wildlife Trust and also Natural England, the government body responsible for monitoring the health of our SSSIs, permission was granted. The selection of the site in the first instance is also contrary to guidance drawn up by the BRE National Solar Centre (BRE(2014) Biodiversity Guidance for Solar Developments. Eds G E Parker and L Greene), in partnership with the RSPB, the National Trust, Plantlife, the Eden Project and Wiltshire Wildlife Trust.

This document states that “it is important that developments avoid ecologically sensitive sites” and that “sites that are within or functionally linked to ecologically sensitive sites are very unlikely to be appropriate”. The production of such guidance is questionable if a company is prepared to ignore it in the pursuit of profit.

What is even more alarming with the Rampisham Down decision is that the site need not be developed at all, since an alternative site was available. West Dorset District Council appears to have completely disregarded this fact in coming to a decision. To grant permission sets a very dangerous precedent and must heighten the concerns of conservationists, as to just how safe our best wildlife sites are.

However, Dorset Wildlife Trust is not alone as only last year our attention was drawn to a scoping proposals to create a solar farm on land immediately adjacent to our Emer Bog/Baddesley Special Area of Conservation/SSSI, which is even more vulnerable since it is not protected by any wildlife designations, yet it is functionally linked to the Emer Bog/Baddesley Common SAC/SSSI site.

It too comprises a large expanse of lowland acid grassland that is directly linked to our site and includes a healthy population of skylark and adders. We are waiting to see whether a full application for the site will come forward.

The Wildlife Trust is generally supportive of applications for renewable energy schemes particularly where these can be sited to avoid detrimental impacts on and/or the loss of wildlife features. We are also mindful of changes to our climate that threatens to reduce biodiversity, unless urgent action is taken to reduce carbon emissions.

Let’s hope that the absurd decision at Rampisham Down will be overturned and that this important wildlife site can be protected to for all to enjoy in the future.