FROM the nightjar to the natterjack toad, Oxfordshire boasts more than 230 threatened or endangered species.

So, with 100,000 homes due to be built in the county by 2031, what steps are being taken to protect the environment?

At present, every large development must have an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), which highlights endangered species.

But the Government has been looking to increase protection for all wildlife.

In the last year, DEFRA has trialled a new method, Biodiversity Offsetting, in six districts – Devon, Doncaster, Essex, Greater Norwich, Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire, Coventry and Solihull.

In that system, ecologists calculate a site’s biodiversity and give it a numerical value, eg. 300.

The methodology accounts for all species, not just the endangered, and also requires projects to demonstrate measurable outcomes.

Then they look at a nearby habitat, such as a farmer’s field, to see how that could be brought up to the same value.

Developers can then better the neighbouring area by turning it into the right sort of habitat for local wildlife, for instance adding certain types of plants.

Payments for environmental work are currently funded through planning gain, where developers pay to enhance surrounding areas affected by construction.

But through Biodiversity Offsetting, the amonut paid would be directly linked to the numerical value given to the biodiversity of the site.

For his masters dissertation, Oxford Brookes ecology student Jonathan Pearce looked at what difference the method would have made to a Grove development.

Taylor Wimpey and Persimmon were given planning permission to build 2,500 homes at Grove’s former airfield in December.

They offered to create new wildflower meadows and woodland on site but were unable to avoid the impact on breeding bird populations which use arable fields and grassland that will be lost.

The species recorded, including 15 of “conservation concern”, included cuckoos, skylarks, grey partridges, and reed bunting.

To mitigate this, the developers agreed to spend £147,000 to create 30 hectares – the equivalent on 24 football pitches– of chalk grassland in Berkshire and manage it for 10 years.

However, under Biodiversity Offsetting, Mr Pearce found the developers would have to spend at least four times as much – £672,000 to bring the site up to the numerical value.

He told the Oxford Mail: “Sites like Grove that are being developed across the countryside are the ones that could particularly benefit from offsetting.

“It doesn’t have habitats that are particularly rich for nature, but most mitigation at the moment focuses on protected species like great crested newts.

“All the areas of fairly low interest like the hedgerows and arable fields wouldn’t count as something that needs to be compensated for, because they are home to a lot of species that are also found elsewhere.

“But it is the cumulative effect of development at a lot of different sites.”

He said: “In that part of Oxfordshire, the Vale of White Horse, there are a lot of big developments happening, and there is a cumulative impact on species.”

The Grove developers have funded 10 years’ management – under offsetting, Mr Pearce calculated that would have to be 100 years. But, he added, a standard calculation for how to compensate could also make developers’ lives quicker and easier.

His dissertation, Biodiversity offsetting in Oxfordshire: an assessment of challenges and opportunities, has been nominated for this year’s Student Projects Award by the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM).

The winner of the prize will be announced at an awards ceremony on June 26 at Birmingham Botanical Gardens.

In the meantime, a DEFRA spokesman said: “There are currently no plans to announce a way forward on biodiversity offsetting.

“The six pilots finished at the end of March and will require several months of analysis before they can fully inform our thinking. We are also considering feedback from our public consultation.”

Returning meadow to its former glory.

BERKS, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) has spent more than £207,488 returning 129 hectares of West Oxfordshire farmland – the equivalent of 200 football pitches – to a wildflower meadow.

Chimney Meadows, near Bampton, is now home to birds such as kestrels and owls, rare plants, otters and other wildlife.

Jonathan Pearce found if the Grove developers had spent the same amount as BBOWT on their mitigation scheme, they would have spent about £6.1m.

Lisa Lane, who helps manage the site, said: “In 2004, funded by an agri-environment scheme grant, we reverted 70 hectares of arable fields back to flower-rich grassland using seeds from a nearby nature reserve.

Oxford Mail:

Landscape manager Lisa Lane at Chimney Meadows near Bampton.

“This work was particularly timely, as the summer floods of 2007, along with wet weather during hay cutting in 2010 and 2012, meant not all the fields on the nature reserve have been subject to the traditional hay cut and aftermath graze.

“Consequently the species diversity on the reserve has decreased in recent years.

“However, because of our work to create new meadows from the old ones, the vulnerability of these plant communities to extinction has been reduced and work will continue to ensure that the reserve recovers, despite changing weather patterns.”

Developer helps to conserve chalk slope.

TAYLOR Wimpey paid for the first official biodiversity offsetting site in the UK to be created in a field not far from Wallingford.

Bushey Bank, a chalk slope on the Earth Trust Farm in Little Wittenham, is home to rare species such as the common blue butterfly, clustered bellflower and pyramidal orchid.

The housing developer paid the Earth Trust, an environmental charity, to manage the area for 15 years and conserve its rare inhabitants to mitigate a housing development on Draycott Road in Southmoor.

The charity’s chief executive Jayne Manley said: “There is a tendency to take our natural environment for granted without considering what it takes to keep it special or improve it.

“Being part of this first pilot conservation credit agreement gives the Earth Trust first-hand, practical understanding of the scheme and how it might work in future.

“Securing funding to enable us to enhance Bushey Bank is a tremendous opportunity for us all as we strive to find new solutions to environmental and funding challenges.

“Of course, ultimately we want to live more sustainably in future – in order to achieve this we will have to explore new approaches.”

Oxford Mail:

Jayne Manley, chief executive for the Earth Trust, at Bushey Bank.

Vale of White Horse District Council cabinet member for planning, Roger Cox, said: “We are in a position where we need to build quite a few houses locally.

“People are understandably worried about that having an effect on the environment. This is a great example of how we’re working very hard and coming up with innovative ways to minimise that impact, and preserve this part of the country as a pleasant and beautiful place to live.”

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