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Jenny Neff CEcol CEnv FCIEEM

Ecological Advisory and Consultancy Services, Consultant Ecological Advisor to Vermilion Energy

Catriona King

Environmental Advisor, Vermilion Energy

With careful planning and the appropriate expertise, it’s possible for energy companies to develop without harming the biodiversity of local areas.

A surge of renewable energy infrastructure has been built in Ireland over the last 20 years. But if the country is to make good on its ambitious pledge to reduce emissions by 51% by 2030, you can expect to see a lot more of it. That means an increasing number of onshore and offshore wind farms will appear over the next decade or two, plus new solar farms and, potentially, hydrogen plants.

These projects are vitally important. Yet they also have the potential to harm the flora and fauna of the local environment, with Birdwatch Ireland noting that they may even create “a biodiversity crisis”. So, is it really feasible to build new onshore wind farms on the peat-rich west coast without destroying complex ecosystems in the process?

Protecting, enhancing and maintaining biodiversity

Vermilion has already done it. In Ireland, the company’s operations are exclusively focused on the Corrib gas field off the north west coast, which supplies up to 60% of the country’s natural gas requirements. Gas is transported from wellheads along 90km of pipeline (83km of it offshore, 8.7km onshore) to a terminal at Bellanaboy, where it’s processed before being delivered to the national grid.

Construction began in 2012, taking the onshore parts of the pipeline through designated conservation sites, including Special Areas of Conservation (SAC) and Special Protection Areas (SPA). “That’s why a commitment was made from the outset to reinstate these habitats to the best level possible,” says Jenny Neff, Consultant Ecological Advisor to Vermilion Energy, who surveyed and monitored the site with her team of experts, including ornithologists, zoologists, mammal specialists, and freshwater as well as marine ecologists. She then prepared the company’s first biodiversity action plan — which launched in 2014 and ran until 2019 — highlighting how these ecosystems would be protected, maintained and enhanced. Neff believes that with a robust biodiversity action plan in place it has been shown to be possible to develop and operate in a way that can have a positive impact on habitats and species.

It’s our responsibility to manage the lands under our stewardship to ensure we have a net neutral or positive impact on species and habitats.

Catriona King

Measures included the planting of 70,000 native trees and shrubs across 10 hectares, plus the creation of 25 wetland ponds (which have increased invertebrate diversity and density). Because only a certain amount of surface vegetation could be saved, 64,000 bog cotton transplants were brought into areas of bare peat, while sphagnum moss was propagated and planted as moss plugs.

Responsibility and commitment to managing lands effectively

Care was taken to use hi-tech innovations in the construction process, notes Neff. For example, when the pipeline was laid underneath the tidal inlet at Leenamore, each sod of salt marsh was removed and geotagged so that they could be put back in the same position later.

“We’re committed to continuing to implement a land management plan,” explains Catriona King, Environmental Advisor, Vermilion Energy. “This includes routine land maintenance and species protection measures and protocols. We’re also undertaking staff training and awareness so that our employees can report sightings of mammals and other species — data which is then reviewed by the ecology team. Plus, we are hoping to develop educational facilities for the public.”

The company’s second biodiversity action plan will be launched this year, providing a review of the actions taken since 2014. In the future, the aim is to share the land more widely with the local community by developing nature trails and, ultimately, hosting school visits to the wetland areas.

“It’s our responsibility to manage the lands under our stewardship to ensure we have a net neutral or positive impact on species and habitats,” says King. “A biodiversity action plan gives us the structure to do this really effectively.”

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