Gallery: Arable farmland in Leiston could be converted into wildlife haven for our most precious species
- Credit: Archant
Decision day is looming for one of the biggest new wildlife habitat creation projects ever likely to be seen in Suffolk – and planning officers are urging councillors to give the ambitious scheme the go-ahead.
EDF Energy hopes to convert arable farmland on the northern outskirts of Leiston into a wildlife haven that will include some of the UK’s most precious and internationally important habitat types.
The plan for Aldhurst Farm, bounded by Leiston’s Carr Avenue and Valley Road to the south, Abbey Road to the west and Lovers Lane to the north and east, involves 60 hectares of heath and acid grassland – habitats for which east Suffolk is internationally renowned but which have suffered drastic losses in the area and in the UK as a whole over many decades. In addition, EDF is planning to create a wetland area in a shallow valley that runs across the site.
Suffolk Coastal District Council’s north area development management sub-committee will consider the plan on Wednesday. Members are being recommended by planning officers to approve the scheme – but although the plan has broad-based support from several statutory environmental bodies and others including Leiston Town Council, 51 letters and emails of objection have been submitted from 47 different addresses.
A key strand of the objections concern the scheme’s relationship with EDF’s controversial Sizewell C plans. Although Aldhurst Farm is submitted as a standalone scheme independent of the final Sizewell C decision, if the new nuclear build eventually goes ahead the Leiston habitat creation will be put forward as at least part compensation for losses suffered by the Sizewell Marshes Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on EDF’s Sizewell Estate.
Some objectors have told Suffolk Coastal that Aldhurst Farm would “never qualify as compensation” for SSSI loss and have even accused EDF of “land grabbing”.
The Sizewell Marshes SSSI covers 104.5ha and EDF says it currently estimates that, if Sizewell C goes ahead, it would require the loss of only a small area of the designated marshland – smaller than the wetland area that is planned.
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Dr Steve Mannings, head of environmental planning for Sizewell C, said: “We are working really hard to reduce the land required from Sizewell Marshes SSSI to build Sizewell C. We consulted with the public about this during our Stage 1 consultation in which we committed to minimise our impacts as far as possible. Our estimates are that there would be a loss of four to five hectares from the SSSI. This has been in our minds as we have thought about what to do at Aldhurst Farm. The extent of the wetland to be created in the scheme is six hectares, including 2km of ditches, 5ha of wet reedbed and 0.8ha of drier reedbed, with a further 60ha of grassland and heathland. We want to create these habitats now because we think it is right to establish them well in advance of any work starting on the proposed new power station. If Sizewell C doesn’t get the go-ahead we would continue to manage the site for wildlife.
“The jury is out regarding compensation for the loss of the SSSI. The decision as to whether this site provides adequate habitat compensation is for the secretary of state to make, advised by Natural England, once our application for development consent has been submitted, which will follow further public consultation. We are taking account of the sensitivities of the whole area and we are absolutely clear that it is necessary and appropriate for us to have answers in terms of the mitigation – and this scheme forms an important part of that. It is a significant part of the mitigation but it is only one element of it.
“We understand the sensitivities around this local environment and people are right to expect us to take our responsibilities towards it seriously.
“The 67ha of Aldhurst Farm will be absorbed into our wider Sizewell Estate, which already covers about 265ha. Large parts of the estate are managed for wildlife in a very successful partnership with Suffolk Wildlife Trust, so we think we have proved to be sensitive guardians of the area. With the trust we have won biodiversity awards – we are very proud of that and we hope the relationship will continue in the same way.”
The question of public access has raised fears among some naturalists who are concerned that unrestricted access would severely compromise the value to wildlife of the heath and grassland areas. But Dr Mannings said: “We think the scheme will strengthen the link between Leiston, the AONB and the Heritage Coast. We will be looking at how to open up parts of the site for quiet public recreation provided that does not conflict with the wildlife interests. The public access will have to be sensitive to that, that is essential, but we think there can be a balance struck regarding public access on parts of the site and the wildlife on the site.
“The exact details will be finalised in due course but the access will be some years away until the habitat is at a stage in its establishment at which access is appropriate.”
Lower grade agricultural land could become a top class haven for a fabulous array of creatures
Only 2% of the Aldhurst Farm site is classified as the best and most versatile agricultural land, with the remaining 88% described as lower grade.
But EDF Energy is hoping 100% of the area will be top class for wildlife –- with some of it doubling to also provide the public with the chance of “quiet recreation”.
One of the keys to the transformation will be the creation of four groundwater basins in the site’s shallow valley –- they will form the reedbed and open water element of the habitats, with peat extracted in their formation being spread across other areas to facilitate the creation of the heath and acid grassland mosaic.
EDF’s senior ecologist Dr Steve Mannings said the peat would be mixed into the soils to a depth of about 30cm to reduce the soil’s pH levels and create the conditions in which heather and grasses could thrive.
Although borehole drilling was taking place on the site, the project was “entirely groundwater-fed” and represented no flood risk - it would even help to alleviate flood risks in the nearby Valley Road area of Leiston which had at times suffered from flooding. The boreholes and a new pumphouse were only needed in case the provision of “stream support” was required for the nearby Leiston Drain and the Sizewell Marshes SSSI but that was only likely “perhaps only one year in 10, or even less than that,” said Dr Mannings.
EDF had no target species in mind in the project – - it was providing habitat hopefully suitable for a range of specialised wildlife, he added. However, naturalists will be hoping that species such as Dartford warbler, stone-curlew, woodlark and silver-studded blue butterfly will use the heath and grass areas, and the wetland will be frequented by such species as marsh harrier, bittern, bearded tit, water vole and otter.
Among the comments to Suffolk Coastal planners in support of the scheme is one from Leiston Town Council, which said: “The proposal itself is most welcome and will benefit the community in years to come whether Sizewell C goes ahead or not.”
Suffolk County Council planners and the authority’s Natural Environment Team said: “The creation of approximately 6ha of reedbed, a national and local priority habitat, and the associated creation of around 60ha of acid grassland/heathland/scrub mosaic, also a national and local priority habitat, on land that is currently arable is a welcome contribution to nature conservation in Suffolk.”