Several areas of the UK earmarked for fracking support some of the country’s richest wildlife, a new study involving Butterfly Conservation has revealed.
As part of one of the biggest ever mapping studies of UK biodiversity, researchers led by the University of Reading found that many areas opened up for potential shale gas extraction by the Government in recent years are home to high levels of biodiversity that may be crucial to the functioning of ecosystems.
Analysis of records of 5,553 species, from groups such as butterflies, moths, birds and plants, going back to 1970 has revealed 65% of the areas of the land deemed suitable for fracking have above-average biodiversity.
Richard Fox, Head of Recording at Butterfly Conservation and one of the authors of the study, said: “Typically only threatened species and habitats are considered when it comes to assessing the biodiversity impacts of major planning decisions.
"However, this narrow focus may not be sufficient to protect areas rich in wildlife or vital ecosystem services such as pollination. This new ecological status map of Britain includes widespread species, many of which are also in decline, as well as threatened ones, and provides a more representative view of biodiversity to inform decisions about major developments such as new towns, roads and rail lines as well as fracking.
"Thanks to the many thousands of volunteers who contribute to our recording schemes, butterflies and larger moths make up over 1,000 of the 5,500 species included in the new map.”
Senior author Dr Tom Oliver from the University of Reading said: “The Government is in danger of putting some of Britain’s favourite wildlife at risk by making decisions on fracking based on blinkered analysis of the environment.
“The protected status of species such as the Great Crested Newt have been vital in protecting wildlife from unregulated development, but our research shows trends in wider biodiversity are not always reflected in those of a handful of endangered species.
“We have more than 45,000 species in the UK and many of them perform important services for humans, such as pollination, decomposition and control of pests. Our new method of analysing biological records collected by volunteers allows us, for the first time, to map this wider biodiversity.”
Currently, records of protected species and habitats are used in environmental impact assessments when making decisions on whether to conserve an area or open it to uses such as fracking.
But this detailed species assessment is costly and can only be done on a local level, and often only after significant investment has been put into the development of a site, making reversal of a decision to proceed unlikely.
Scientists from the University of Reading, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Butterfly Conservation and the British Trust for Ornithology have now cast doubt on whether this is sufficient to identify important areas of biodiversity, with research revealing areas deemed suitable for fracking are in fact among the UK's most rich in wildlife and habitats.
To conduct the study, tens of millions of records, collected by Britain’s army of natural history recorders, were analysed using an innovative method which allows for variation in the effort spent recording each 10km square.
Squares were grouped according to their unique conditions, including climate and geology, to allow meaningful comparisons to be made between similar squares, giving a true indication of which are highest quality for wildlife. Each grid square was then given a quality rating based on its relative biodiversity value within its group. These ratings can be viewed on an interactive map created to illustrate the results of the study.
Records from the respective periods of 1970-1990 and 2000-2013 were analysed seperately, to determine if biodiversity had increased or decreased over time.
This revealed that many areas that had experienced a decrease in endangered species - potentially making them appear more suitable for development, according to current assessment methods - had actually seen an increase in their wider biodiversity, making them more important to the country's wider ecosystem.
Lead author Dr Rob Dyer, previously working at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, said: “Currently there are no data-driven methods to conduct ecological impact assessments at large spatial scales for large infrastructure projects such as shale gas or new housing developments.
“Our new method offers a way to prioritise areas for their wildlife value. This may help to target more detailed environmental assessments for the location of infrastructure projects or for ecological restoration work.”