Wildlife warning on biofuels crops

A FARMER and wildlife expert has warned that growing crops for fuels could put wildlife at risk if they are grown in the wrong places.John Cousins, a Suffolk farmer and head of agricultural policy at The Wildlife Trusts believes that biofuels can help to reduce climate change, but urged “extreme care” in where and how it is grown.

A FARMER and wildlife expert has warned that growing crops for fuels could put wildlife at risk if they are grown in the wrong places.

John Cousins, a Suffolk farmer and head of agricultural policy at The Wildlife Trusts believes that biofuels can help to reduce climate change, but urged “extreme care” in where and how it is grown.

Leading environmental groups have made an urgent plea to Government not to downgrade other environmental concerns in promoting bioenergy to help tackle climate change.

In a new report, Bioenergy in the UK, they say crops such as willow, oil-seed rape and miscanthus (elephant grass), grown for energy generation, could be sown over large areas of the UK, forming monocultures that provide little sustenance for wildlife.


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It warns that without proper management, cultivation of crops for fuel, electricity and heat could cause further declines of farmland wildlife, damage the character of landscape, harm historic and archaeological sites and damage soil and water quality.

Mr Cousins said: “We must all work hard to reduce climate change, and biofuels can offer one part of the solution. Extreme care must be taken with the siting and scale of biofuel crops to ensure minimal impact on biodiversity.”

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The report calls for a UK-wide assessment of the potential and drawbacks of bioenergy, certification of bioenergy schemes to ensure producers prove cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and planning policies that guard against unsuitable bioenergy developments and changes in land use.

The paper, published by 11 organisations, including The Wildlife Trusts, RSPB, the National Trust, CPRE and Council for British Archaeology, welcomes the opportunities bioenergy development creates, and says the potential for environmental harm can be avoided.

“Growing crops for fuel could put wildlife at risk if they're grown in inappropriate habitats. For example, if short rotation coppice is grown in an area of wetland which is important for a particular species, then the value of that habitat will decrease and change and the species will be placed at risk,” said Mr Cousins.

Grown in the right places, biofuels crops could be an “advantageous land use” over existing management, he said, citing the example of replacing intensively-managed arable crops with miscanthus.

“Wood fuel can provide a valuable biofuel and be positive for woodland biodiversity. Many of our woods have had centuries of continuous management for timber products, creating the wildlife-rich habitats we see today,” he said.

Helen Meech, senior policy and campaigns offer at the National Trust, pointed out that at many of their properties, they were using small-scale biomass for heating and hot water as a practical and positive way to cut carbon emissions.

“However, it is crucial that the growth of bioenergy in the UK does not come at a high price - serious damage to our natural and historic environment,” she said.

“We're particularly concerned about potential environmental damage from intensively grown biofuel crops used for transport fuels.

“This report is a timely reminder that Government has a key role to play to ensure that the growth of bioenergy in the UK is sustainable, working in partnership with conservation organisations, farmers and land managers.”

Abi Bunker, agricultural policy officer at the RSPB said the report should serve as a “wake-up call” to Government.

“Nearly 2.5million acres could soon be planted with crops for biofuels and heat and power generation by 2020.That is a lot of land to sacrifice if environmental safeguards are not put in place first.”

Sarah.chambers@eadt.co.uk

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