Impacts of Biomass and Bioenergy Crops on Landscape, Land Use and the Wider Environment in Northern Ireland and Scotland ER05
March 2010


Background to research

In order to create a more carbon efficient economy, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and meet the requirements of targets and legislation set by the European Union (EU), United Kingdom (UK) and Devolved Administrations (DA‘s), many Government strategies and policies are encouraging the use of renewable energy sources, including bioenergy. Changes in land use to grow biomass and bioenergy crops have potentially both negative and positive impacts on landscape and the environment. To ensure targets and legislation are sustainable and to maximise the potential positive outcomes from new policies, it is important to understand these impacts both at local and broader scales. By increasing our understanding of the impacts of biomass and bioenergy crops, the outcomes of this study should facilitate the creation of sustainable policies and practices, enabling a holistic approach to managing land use change in the short, medium and long term.

Objectives of research
The aims of this project are to:

This desk based scoping project is a preliminary assessment to determine the possible positive and negative effects from biomass and bioenergy crops on landscape and the wider environment in Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is not intended as a full life-cycle analysis of production and use of such crops. This study does not provide a definitive statement on whether certain areas have ―capacity‖ for new forestry and bioenergy crops. It, therefore, should be regarded as an assessment which would need to be refined at the case-specific level. The main conclusions of the report are based on the assumption that good management practices are being followed.

Key findings

A literature review and a landscape impact assessment were carried out. For economic and land suitability reasons, it was concluded that forestry, Short Rotation Forestry (SRF) and Short Rotation Coppice (SRC) offered the greatest potential for bioenergy feedstocks production in both Scotland and Northern Ireland at the current time. The study found that the net landscape and environmental impact of forestry, SRC and SRF could be positive for small-scale expansion, with appropriate management and planning, due consideration of the environment and landscape scale (rather than solely maximising yield) and avoiding areas of locally high sensitivity. Larger rates of development increase the possibility of adverse landscape and environmental impacts requiring good land-use planning rather than ‘ad hoc‘ development. The appraisal of key targets within current policies, strategies and commitments found that although a large number of targets exist they are not specific for bioenergy crops (apart from the Scottish Forestry Strategy) or spatially explicit. This limited the use of the targets to guide the landscape impact assessment undertaken. The Scottish Government is currently committed to developing a Land Use Strategy which should address this issue in Scotland.

The review of the large volume of available literature found that the potential environmental impacts of forestry and bioenergy crops are not generic. Site, landscape and crop specific factors need to be considered. No one crop, management regime or design will be appropriate throughout either country.

Based on biophysical criteria the landscape impact assessment found that at the national level large areas of both countries are potentially suitable for forestry, SRF and SRC. Very few areas were found to not have any potential for restricted land-use change; however many areas were considered to be potentially sensitive indicating the need for additional caution and attention to good planning and design. This was particularly true for uplands. Lowlands and farmlands appear to be less sensitive but there could be loss of landscape function, particularly for livestock production.

The lower sensitivity of lowlands and consideration of biophysical and economic constraints implies that the expansion of forestry, SRC and SRF in both countries is most likely to take place on land that is currently grassland, and more particularly grassland located in marginal areas. Potential negative impacts on flora and fauna communities associated with open landscapes could be an important issue. Lowland grasslands of biodiversity value that are not designated could be lost through land use change.

Soils with high carbon content should be avoided due to the potential for them to become a net carbon emitter.

Where best practice is followed potential negative impacts on water quantity in Northern Ireland and Scotland are not felt to be significant at present due to fairly consistent high rainfall. However climate change may cause this to become a more relevant issue.

There are a large number of well researched and supported guidelines available for forestry in general to support good planning and management. There is, however, a lack of specific design and management guidelines for SRC and SRF looking at impacts on ecosystem services, particularly biodiversity at the landscape scale. Although none of the available forestry guidelines are statutory, forestry grants and felling approvals are only given to schemes which conform to good practice. The Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) regulations require that an assessment is carried out for any project involving afforestation/deforestation (EIA forestry) and/or agricultural operations on semi-natural habitats (EIA agriculture). The EIA regulations must be effectively implemented to ensure the environmental risks from land use change are considered and sensitive habitats are adequately protected.

Gaps and Recommendations

Key words: Biomass, Bioenergy, Landscape, Forestry, Short Rotation Coppice, Short Rotation Forestry, Perennial Grasses, Annual Crops, Impact Assessment

Copies of this report are available from the Foundation, in electronic format on CDRom at £20.00 + VAT or hard copy at £35.00, less 20% to FWR members.

N.B. The report is available for download from the SNIFFER Website