Land use lessons of the past could help in future
The time-honoured tradition of coppicing could give offer best of both worlds, providing biofuel to cut carbon emissions and a helpful haven for wildlife, say researchers.
While energy crops used to produce bioethanol still spark hot debate with some questioning their environmental benefits when weighed against the demands they put on land resources, perennial biomass crops have additional benefits.
This is the conclusion of research team from the universities of East Anglia and Exeter, the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, in a study to identify the effects of increasing the amount of land used to grow these new crops.
Their calculations suggest that planting biomass crops to generate electricity does lead to net savings in greenhouse gases, compared with current emissions.
Concerns have previously been raised about the likely effects on farmland biodiversity, water resources and familiar landscapes, as well as the pressures on land used for growing food crops.
But the researchers say that short coppice rotation (SRC) of willow in particular actually had positive effects for butterflies, some invertebrates and most bird species.
Looking at water usage, they found that SRC willow is similar to cereal crops, while miscanthus is more comparable to woodlands.
Dr Angela Karp, who lead the research team, said: "Our results suggest that there is definite potential for growing more of them, without negative effects, although we do find that sensitive plantation design would be beneficial, both for wildlife and for aesthetic impact.
"One of the outcomes from our project is detailed mapping across England, which identifies areas which could be suitable for growing energy crops.
"This shows that we could meet government objectives of growing 350,000 hectares of these for electricity without impacting on food production. However, to meet an additional 750,000 for transport fuels would increase pressure on available land."