Using a Grampian condition to protect birds from wind farms

19th May 2016


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  • Mitigation ,
  • Generation ,
  • Renewable

Author

Marcelle Hornshaw

Michael Phillips, principal planning consultant at Dulas, describes how to use Grampian conditions to satisfy nature conservation bodies on controlling the potential impacts of wind turbines on kestrels.

Where modelling identifies a risk of protected birds colliding with wind turbine blades and the statutory nature conservation advisor objects to a proposed development, options for effective mitigation are typically limited. Such a challenge arose for the applicant on the Lawrence landfill wind energy scheme in Pembrokeshire.

The scheme, comprising two 86.5 metre wind turbines, was screened as EIA development on the grounds that it was ‘sensitive’ under schedule 3 criteria as it would be sited on an ex-landfill site, with the potential for the release of hazardous materials. It turned out, however, that contaminated land was much the lesser issue in the preparation of the EIA; instead, a low number of survey records of Kestrel using the landfill site as feeding territory created a greater obstacle to development.

Kestrel is amber-listed in the RSPB’s Birds of Conservation Concern 4 because of a long-term decline across the UK. It is estimated to have a breeding population in Pembrokeshire of only 30-35 pairs. Collision risk modelling predicted a mortality rate of 1.3 birds a year, equivalent to approximately two per cent of the local breeding population. This resulted in the impact on the species being defined as ‘significantly adverse’.

This definition resulted from the very low population in the county, rather than a prediction that there was a high risk to the species in particular. Potential mortality rates were higher for other bird species (4.2 birds a year for buzzard and 11.47 birds a year for Canada geese) but because such species were recorded in much higher numbers across the county the predicted level of adverse effects were lower than for kestrel.

As EIA coordinator, Dulas acknowledged the potential harm associated with kestrel and discussed potential mitigation with the project ecologist. Options to reduce the number of turbines, introduce a curtailment programme, or to substantially reduce the blade length of the candidate turbine would all reduce the potential collision risk, but were shown as unviable in financial modelling.

At the time of EIA preparation, the key reason for the low population level was the lack of suitable nest sites in the county. Supplementary environmental information (SEI) recommended providing multiple off-site nesting boxes, with the applicant working with the Pembrokeshire Kestrel Project to identify suitable nest sites.

The statutory nature conservation agency resisted this proposal, explaining that there was little certainty that this would redress the adverse effects, and the complexity of securing such provisions through planning obligations. Constructively, the nature conservation advisor identified a critical need for kestrel habitat creation in the county. If such an area could be offered up for habitat restoration to improve the feeding territory of the birds, we were advised that there would be greater certainty on the efficacy of the proposed mitigation.

The mitigation measures evolved through the submission and consultation on the SEI. We were advised that the geographical location of this enhancement area should be within a distance of around 500m from the current feeding area at the landfill site. This created a sufficient buffer from the turbines so as not to be a collision risk, while ensuring that the enhanced habitat was still associated with the scheme. While not within the red line application boundary, the applicant had control over the off-site land enabling the potential use of a Grampian-style condition to ensure that the local authority had the ability to impose control over this requirement.

Kestrel require areas of prey-rich habitat, usually rough ungrazed or lightly grazed tussocky grassland. Suitable improvement habitat nearby was confirmed as potentially supporting good numbers of insects such as beetles, as well as voles and other small mammals, and seed sources for passerine birds, creating an ideal feeding habitat.

Grassland plots totalling around 0.6ha would be turned back to rough grassland habitat, to be maintained by winter grazing at low intensity. This change in pastoral management would provide a suitable grassland structure and establish a habitat to be maintained free of scrub. This strict regime has been agreed alongside a monitoring plan to record use of the site and to determine the effectiveness of the off-site habitat enhancement.

The combination of greater certainty of successfully mitigating significant adverse effects to kestrel, along with the ability of the applicant to secure rights for off-site habitat creation, were instrumental in gaining development consent. These rights were coupled to a pre-commencement Grampian-style condition preventing operation of the wind farm until an agreement on off-site habitat creation was secured with the nature conservation agency.

EIA, through consultation and evaluation of alternative mitigation options, resulted in a positive outcome for both the kestrel population of Pembrokeshire and the applicant of the Lawrence landfill wind energy scheme.

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