Guest post by Sarah Alsbury, RSPB Environmental Systems Project Manager
The mad thing about importing biomass to burn for energy is that we have plenty in the UK, which is often left to rot on the ground. We have this problem on many reserves, especially our wetlands. We need to cut grass, reeds, rush, trees and scrub to maintain the habitat for wildlife – research, for example, shows that not cutting and removing trees in our broadleaf woodlands is one of the main causes of the decline of woodland birds. However, we often find it difficult to find a use for this material, as it is generally too poor a quality for farmers or timber merchants to take. We’ve been researching solutions and know that we can make Biofuels out of this material. We have even found a way forward at a number of reserves:
Leighton Moss, LancashireA Heizomat 75kW woodchip boiler was installed in 2009, which heats the visitor centre, offices and volunteer house. We need 36 tonnes of woodchip a year - some has come from the removal of non-native species from a small piece of woodland on the reserve; the rest is supplied by a local estate from their woodlands. We are working with the Silverdale AONB to see if there are other under-managed woodlands that we can start to manage.
Leighton Moss' woodchip boiler
Ham Wall, SomersetHam Wall is a newly created wetland reserve on former peat workings. Here, we now have about 200 hectares of reed, which we cut on rotation. The reed is mown by a specialist machine called a Softrak – a tracked vehicle which can cross soft ground that you would sink in to the top of your wellies! The clippings are then composted and make a fine soil conditioner or mulch, which is sold to visitors.
However, none of this is easy – the machinery is expensive and the boilers are expensive. We are therefore delighted that the Department of Energy and Climate Change is funding this important work. We look forward to working with them and the other wetland managers involved to see the scheme delivered so that, with research into the best machinery and biofuel options, we can unlock a major source of renewable energy. By the end of their project, we should have a way of generating biofuels that stacks up financially. Our waste will become a crop and give wildlife habitat an economic value.