Solar parks could be used to boost bumblebee numbers, study suggests
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Solar parks could provide habitats for wildlife – and particularly bumblebees – to flourish, if managed in the right way, benefiting farmers and nature, new research suggests.
There are already 14,000 hectares (35,000 acres) of solar parks in the UK, in which arrays of solar panels are installed over a large area, and an estimated 90,000 hectares will be needed. Yet the parks have attracted controversy over claims they are ugly, blight productive land and harm nature.
If solar park owners were encouraged to use the land to sow wildflowers alongside the solar panels, they could become valuable habitats for pollinators, research from Lancaster University has found. Managing them in this way would boost bumblebee numbers beyond the borders of the parks, to about 1km (0.6 miles) away, benefiting farmers who rely on bees to pollinate their crops.
One simulation run by the study group found four times as many bees in a solar park managed as a wildflower meadow than in one based on turf grass.
Hollie Blaydes, a researcher at Lancaster University who will present the findings at a conference, said: “Our research suggests that the management of vegetation within the solar parks is really important. Solar parks managed as a meadow act as bumblebee habitat that is rich in flowering plants. Management to create floral-rich bumblebee habitat could be one of the simplest ways to support bumblebees on solar parks.”
Despite appearances, the large arrays of solar panels offer many advantages over other tracts of land in providing a habitat for pollinators. “The characteristics of many solar parks mean they could be ideal places to create this bumblebee habitat,” said Blaydes.
“Solar parks can occupy large areas of land, and while some of this is taken up by solar panels and other infrastructure, this typically only disturbs 5% of the ground. Large areas of land are therefore available to create bumblebee habitat … and [the solar parks] are often located in agricultural habitats where much bumblebee [population] has been lost. Establishing habitat on solar parks may therefore provide bumblebees with resources where they are most needed.”
Post-Brexit agricultural subsidy systems could be used to give solar park owners an incentive to use their land as meadows rather than turf, and the reduced need for cutting grass and other interventions could spell small savings in management costs.
The way such parks are currently owned and managed, with the management often outsourced to external companies by the landowners on short-term contracts, typically of two years, also presents difficulties that well-designed government incentives could overcome.
Blaydes said: “Our findings provide the first quantitative evidence that solar parks could be used as a conservation tool to support and boost pollinator populations. If they are managed in a way that provides resources [such as flowers], solar parks could become valuable bumblebee habitat.”
The research, which is still unpublished, will be presented on Monday to at a conference held by Ecology Across Borders.