The fight for Rampisham Down - Dorset Wildlife Trust Chief Executive, Dr Simon Cripps tells us more

Rampisham Down. Photo by Tony Bates

Rampisham Down. Photo by Tony Bates - Credit: Archant

Rampisham Down is one of the UK’s largest remaining sites of lowland acid grassland. So why grant permission to build a solar power station on this rare habitat, asks Dorset Wildlife Trust Chief Executive, Dr Simon Cripps

As I stand on the brow of the hill that forms Rampisham Down in West Dorset, looking over the top of the barbed wire and guard dog signs, I wonder how we can show to the average person just how important this enormous field is. The wind and mist off Lyme Bay swirls around this ordinary looking grassland. Most unusual are the few remaining communications masts – a throw-back to the BBC World Service and the Cold War.

Rampisham Down, at 76ha, is one of the largest remaining sites of lowland acid grassland. This type of habitat has been lost in Britain over recent years so that only a few fragmented patches survive. Rampisham amounts to about 1.5% of what remains, making it very important indeed. Critics have said that there are no rare or charismatic species here. This is true, as few of the plants and fungi for which it is famous, are particularly scarse. Oh for a panda or cheetah gambolling across the horizon. It’s the grouping that’s rare and important. Whilst it may not look exciting, it is part of the essential fabric of our countryside. The diversity of animals, plants and habitats is what keeps us and the environment healthy and productive, and underpins a growth and development agenda so beloved of government.

Rampisham Down is so important it was designated an SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) by Natural England, the government’s advisor on the natural environment. That designation, along with its position in the Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, should make it highly protected and an asset for us all. Because of this protection we were astonished when Councillors on the West Dorset Planning Committee voted to allow development of a huge solar power station on the site reputed to comprise more than 100,000 panels. It is the piles and shading that will damage the nature. This decision flew in the face of reputable science, the opposition of Natural England experts, Dorset Wildlife Trust, CPRE, the Council’s own planning officer, and many others including local residents. Government guidance is very clear about the process that needs to be followed to protect such sites, especially when there are alternatives, but this guidance was not followed.

So is Dorset Wildlife Trust just another bunch of tree-hugging nimbys against development and solar power? Absolutely not! We support the development of renewables as we all have to do more to reduce climate change. We are even considering our own solar development in the east of Dorset. We aren’t even against a solar power station in this area. The same developer has lodged a planning application for a site across the road, which we support. Renewables don’t though trump nature or environment. There are plenty of sites across Dorset suitable for such developments, so don’t damage an SSSI, one of the few special places that actually does have protection. We hope Secretary of State Eric Pickles will play Prince Charming to Dorset’s Cinderella, and save this national treasure. His Department for Communities and Local Government have put a ‘holding direction’ on the application so that West Dorset District Council cannot issue a planning consent without his permission. Whilst this stops any imminent damage, he has yet to decide on whether the development is ultimately to go ahead or, as we hope, go to an independent Planning Inspector. But to put this development on Rampisham Down, when there are viable alternatives close by, is just not acceptable.

Do you agree with Simon or have you a different point of view? Email the editor, drop us a line via pen and paper or tweet your thoughts @dorsetmag #rampisham