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Solar farm grassland plans slammed

Nature experts have hit out at a decision to allow a solar farm with tens of thousands of panels to be built on protected wildlife-rich grassland.

West Dorset District Council has approved plans for the renewable energy project on Rampisham Down, one of the largest areas of lowland acid grassland in England and designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) for its wildlife importance.

Conservationists fear the installation of more than 100,000 panels will destroy much of the site, which supports masses of flowers such as lousewort and eyebright, as well as wildlife including skylarks and waxcap fungi.

The scheme has been approved despite the council's own planning officers recommending it should be turned down, opposition from government conservation agency Natural England and Dorset Wildlife Trust, and an alternative site being proposed across the road.

The development of a 24 megawatt (MW) solar farm will consist of around 119,280 photovoltaic panels on steel frames installed in the 72-hectare (187 acre) former BBC Rampisham Down Transmitter Station site, following demolition of 34 out of 35 radio masts and towers.

Natural England had warned the plans would "damage or destroy" nationally important lowland acid grassland and heathland, and conflict with the legal protection Rampisham Down had been given as an SSSI.

It would also have "unacceptable and avoidable major adverse impacts" on the landscape of the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) which it is in, the Government's conservation agency said.

Ian Gardner, chairman of West Dorset District Council's development control committee, said: "In taking this decision we had to balance the economic and environmental benefits of the solar farm and the removal of the 34 redundant masts with the impact of the proposed scheme."

But Paul Wilkinson, head of living landscapes for the Wildlife Trusts, said: "Although the Wildlife Trusts are not opposed to solar farms and renewables in principle, we are shocked at the decision to develop this site which has legal protection for its national wildlife significance.

"This is one of the largest remaining areas of special acid grassland in lowland England. It is an area which supports a range of wildlife from adders to skylarks and waxcap fungi - and the development will result in extensive damage and habitat loss across a large part of this very special place."

He added: "This is simply the wrong place for this development and Rampisham should be protected not destroyed."

Dorset Wildlife Trust's chief executive Dr Simon Cripps said: "With a viable alternative site available, we can't understand why the council has allowed this important wildlife site to be lost to developers.

"Dorset Wildlife Trust supports renewable energy, in the right place.

"T hese special, legally protected wildlife sites are few and far between and there's no need to destroy them, especially in this case, when there is a perfectly acceptable alternative site nearby, which we support."

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