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Ecotricity explains: Boosting biodiversity at our green gas mills

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10 Mar 2022

We’re in a climate emergency. Today, only around 30% of our electricity is generated by truly renewable means – technically, it could be 100% by now if the political will was there.

Electricity is only half the story. Heating our homes and powering industry with fossil gas is one of the biggest sources of carbon emissions. How can we slash the climate impact of heating without scrapping tens of millions of gas boilers?

The answer, of course, is to make green gas from grass. Building green gas mills, as we’re doing right now near Reading, is the quickest and cheapest way to replace fossil gas use in Britain.

What’s more, our green gas mills are fed with species-rich herbal leys, which help boost biodiversity, lock in carbon and improve soil quality on the marginal grasslands or replaced monoculture grasslands that we plan to use.

What is a species-rich herbal ley?

Herbal leys are grasslands made up of legumes, herbs and grasses. The exact species mixtures will depend on local soil conditions but we’ll typically be planting various types of clovers, sainfoin, chicory, lucence, birdsfoot trefoil, along with grasses such as Timothy, ryegrass and cocksfoot.

Species-rich herbal ley
How will green gas mills boost biodiversity?

Biodiversity has declined dramatically across much of lowland Britain because of the increase in both intensive arable systems and monoculture grasslands.

Our species-rich herbal leys will both feed our green gas mills and support a much higher density of insects, bees and other pollinators than any intensively managed grassland or arable field, thanks to the lack of artificial pesticides and agrochemicals.

The diverse range of species in the herbal leys means that there will always be plants flowering between cuts. They’ll attract insects for a variety of birds, from skylarks and yellow wagtails to whitethroats and grey partridges, as well as bats.

Bumble bees and many solitary bees have declined dramatically in intensive grasslands and the introduction of clovers and other legumes into farmed landscapes will provide a significant source of pollen and nectar which may help to slow that decline.

Insects and insect larva will also provide food for voles, shrews and mice, which in turn may be prey for mammalian predators such as weasels and stoats, as well as birds of prey such as kestrels, buzzards, harriers and owls.

How do the herbal leys improve the soil?

Plants capture carbon from the atmosphere and transfer it to the soil, where it’s utilised by the soil biology to unlock vital nutrients which would otherwise be unavailable to the growing plants.

The greater diversity of plants in a ley, the greater the diversity of soil biology, which in turn produces greater yield and therefore more carbon captured. Just a small increase in soil carbon content can have a huge impact on its ability to hold moisture, something that’s increasingly important in our hot dry summers.

We won’t need to use artificial fertilisers thanks to our use of clovers to accumulate nitrogen and the use of the left over digestate from the green gas mill as soil conditioner.

Clovers helping bees
How will the green gas mills work alongside existing farmland?

The species-rich herbal leys will be planted on marginal grassland or replaced monoculture grassland close to the green gas mills. In some places, they could be used as a 4/5-year break crop for areas with a high level of black grass infestation, enabling the land to once again be used for growing wheat for human consumption.

The deeper rooting clovers, lucence and sainfoin in the herbal leys will improve water percolation and drainage, reducing the risk of surface water runoff and loss of topsoil, which contributes to better soil structure, nutrient and carbon levels.

Digestate for farmers
How can you help give land back to nature?

Our green mobile phone service, Ecotalk, is also helping nature to bounce back by investing 100% of profits to buy back land for nature.

In July 2019, Ecotalk helped the RSPB buy Fairburn Tips in West Yorkshire. Today, biodiversity is thriving at the old coal dumping ground with woodland, lakes and lowland heath habitat making a wonderful home for bees and butterflies, including Essex Skippers and Common Blues.

You can help us buy more land for nature, just by swapping your SIM. Ecotalk has the best coverage in the UK with the EE network and some of the lowest cost tariffs around.

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