Why we are concerned for Rampisham Down SSSI

Rampisham Down cpt Dominic Cleal

Located 11 miles North West of Dorchester, Rampisham Down - formerly a BBC World Service transmission station - supports the largest area of lowland acid grassland found in Dorset and is one of the largest areas of its type in the country

Save Rampisham Down

Your voice counts. Send a message to the Secretary of State asking him to ‘call in’ and reverse the decision.

Why are we campaigning to save Rampisham Down?

Rampisham Down is a site of national importance - it is a precious and vital part of our national heritage

On 15 January 2015, West Dorset Council’s Planning Committee voted to approve an application by British Solar Renewables to build a solar farm on Rampisham Down, a site which, through its designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, has legal protection. You can read our response to this decision here.

This decision was taken against the advice of the Council’s planning officers, Natural England and Dorset Wildlife Trust, and despite the fact that a suitable alternative site was available across the road.

This perverse decision goes against the Government’s National Planning Policy Framework  -  local authorities have statutaory obligations to protect important designated wildlife sites for future generations.  It is vital for the approval to be reviewed and reversed by The Department for Communities and Local Government.  

The Wildlife Trusts believe that protection and recovery of the natural environment should be at the heart of all planning decisions.   Rampisham Down is simply the wrong place for this development and should be protected.

If the solar farm goes ahead, not only do we lose one of the most important lowland acid grasslands in England, but the decision also undermines Government tests for every other nationally protected area around the country, meaning that they could be at risk from damaging development or other damaging activities in the future.

What are we doing to save Rampisham Down? 

We are asking our members and the public to send a message to the Secretary of State asking him to ‘call in’ and reverse the decision

The Wildlife Trusts are pressing the Government to urgently review the decision to allow a solar farm on Rampisham Down. We are asking the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to ‘call in’ this decision, and for the issues to be examined by an independent inspector.  We are asking our members and the public to send a message to the Secretary of State asking him to ‘call in’ and reverse the decision.

‘Calling-in’ a planning application refers to the power of the Secretary of State to take the decision-making power on a particular planning application out of the hands of the local planning authority for his own determination.  This can be done at any time during the planning application process, up to the point at which the local planning authority actually makes the decision.  If a planning application is called-in, there will be a public inquiry chaired by a planning inspector who will make a recommendation to the Secretary of State.  He can choose to reject these recommendations, if he wishes, and will take the final decision.

Why is Rampisham Down precious? 

SSSIs give legal protection to the best sites for wildlife and geology

In March 2014, Natural England confirmed Rampisham Down in Dorset as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its special grassland and heathland habitats.  It supports a large area of acid grassland, small stands of lowland heathland and transitional grass and heath plant communities.  The large size of this site which has, for the most part, escaped any modern-day agricultural improvement is particularly unusual.

The extensive acid grassland is typically dominated by fine grasses, such as common bent, sweet vernal-grass, red and sheep’s-fescue and, more locally, heath-grass; as well as frequent field wood-rush.

Characteristic broad-leaved herbaceous plants typical of the unimproved acid grassland include tormentil, heath bedstraw, pignut and birds-foot-trefoil (pictured).  Less frequent, but still present in many areas, are heath milkwort, common dog-violet, mouse-ear-hawkweed and heath speedwell.

Of special interest are stands of ‘chalk’ acid grassland with additional grasses, such as quaking and downy oat-grass and herbs of dwarf thistle and ladies bedstraw.  This is an extremely rare habitat which has been lost in many former locations.

This kind of lowland dry acid grassland is a naturally impoverished habitat and the number of plant species present is often restricted due to low fertility and acidity.  So, for example, there may be fewer flower species in lowland acid grassland than in unimproved limestone pastures.  However, although not as diverse, the species of acid grassland are different and specially adapted to the particular geology and challenges of growing in acidic soils.  This means that their interest in terms of nature conservation and science is just as valuable, significant and worthy of protection in the modern landscape.

Many of the invertebrates found in acid grassland are specialist species which do not occur in other types of grassland

The assemblage of plants that grow together in these conditions is also unusual and special in itself, and the habitat has been identified as a national priority by ecologists and the Government.  Lowland dry acid grassland is one of 56 habitats considered to be of principal importance for the conservation of biological diversity in England, under Section 41 of the Natural Environment and Rural Communities Act.  This followed its identification as a priority habitat under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

Many of these grasslands are  ancient in origin. In some cases, they may have developed more than 5,000 – 7,000 years ago when people are thought to have initiated woodland clearance.  Trees were replaced by a mixture of shrubby heathland with acid grassland in areas where the shrub cover was suppressed by grazing animals and/or regular fires.  The relative proportions of heath and grassland in these areas has probably always varied in response to changes in the prevailing agricultural, economic and cultural systems.  The key seems to be that these grasslands have never been improved by re-seeding, applications of fertilisers or subsequently shaded out by a tree canopy.  

The significance of surviving sites like Rampisham Down has been greatly increased by the loss of extensive areas of acid grassland across England, particularly since the Second World War.  The main losses have been due to agricultural intensification, afforestation and development.  In other words, this plant community is increasingly rare at a national level and the survival of reasonably large blocks of this type of grassland is highly unusual.  It is estimated that only 15,453 hectares of lowland acid grassland now survive in England and its area is still reducing.  Moreover, only 3,000-4,000 hectares of this very particular kind of lowland acid grassland - known as U4 - found at Rampisham Downa remains in England.

It is estimated that only 15,453 hectares of lowland acid grassland now survive in England and its area is still reducing

The presence of an open sward but still with a relative abundance of nectar and pollen producing plants, often means that this habitat can be important for invertebrates and other animals.  Many of the invertebrates found in acid grassland are specialist species which do not occur in other types of grassland. It is likely to support significant numbers of the Grayling butterfly, which has declined by 18% since the mid 1990s and disproportionately so on its inland heathland and acid grassland habitats.  Other significant species likely to be present include the small heath, dark green fritillary and small copper butterflies.

In a number of places across England, projects have actively worked to re-establish, restore and expand areas of acid grassland like this because they are so highly valued.

Why re-development of this 'brownfield' site is inappropriate

Rampisham Down is  not a ‘brownfield’ site in the same way in which the term is used in an urban or industrial context

The National Planning Policy Framework encourages the effective use of land by reusing land that has been previously developed (brownfield), provided that it is not of high environmental value.

Whilst this site has been given brownfield status - defined as land that has previously been developed - in reality, the acid grassland was a pre-existing habitat which has largely co-existed with the BBC’s temporary but relatively benign presence.

New activities which directly damage the grassland or affect its integrity, condition or species composition would not be appropriate for a Site of Special Scientific Interest of national importance.

The Wildlife Trusts consider that the current proposal for a solar farm would irrevocably damage the integrity and ecological character of this Site of Special Scientific Interest.

This is because of:

  • Loss of grassland due to the physical footprint of the installation;
  • Changed micro-climate for any remnant grassland by the presence and operation of the solar panels (shading, changed light wavelength quality even if the panels are translucent, changed moisture levels, altered nutrient levels and disturbance).  There has been no scientific research, evidence or evaluation provided to demonstrate that an extensive array of solar panels will not have deleterious impacts on the acid grassland.
  • Damage from the process of construction;
  • Fragmentation of the site

Why we support renewables but not at Rampisham Down

The Wildlife Trusts fully support renewables - in the right place

The Wildlife Trusts are very concerned about climate change and its likely impacts on the natural environment and wildlife.  Wild species are likely to be profoundly affected.  Their resilience and ability to adapt to a changing climate has been greatly reduced by the fragmentation and degradation of the English landscape.  The main response of species to climate change is to move northwards and upwards but the potential for migration of plants and animals has been severely reduced by the many barriers that people have placed in their path.  Local extinction rates are likely to increase as species become trapped in unsuitable locations.

Our view of renewable energy developments is determined on a case-by-case basis...based on evidence of specific impacts on the local natural environment and wildlife

In principle, The Wildlife Trusts strongly support initiatives which reduce carbon emissions by promoting sustainable renewable sources of energy to reduce society’s reliance on fossilised carbon.  We are therefore not opposed to solar farms per se.  We are also, for example, highly supportive of the Green Building Council's campaign to retrofit green technology to existing housing stock. You can find more details of the campaign here.

However, the imperative to develop renewable energy does not override at all costs the equally important objective of protecting wild places and the natural environment.  We need a balanced approach.  

Our view of renewable energy developments is determined on a case-by-case basis and an assessment of the merits of each proposal based on evidence of its specific impacts on the local natural environment and wildlife.  Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, for example, has installed solar panels on one of its sites.   However, it is not a SSSI and has a low level of biodiversity.  It is also a fraction of the size of the array proposed at Rampisham Down.  Wildlife Trusts apply the same approach to deciding their views on any type of development proposal; whether it involves housing, transport or industry.

Local planning authorities have statutory obligations to consider biodiversity when determining applications. The Government’s National Planning Policy Framework is clear that developments on protected sites, such as Rampisham, should not go ahead if alternatives are available

Image credits:  Birds-foot-trefoil: Ken Dolbear MBE, Lousewort: Stewart Canham