‘There’s nothing green about driving a corridor 100m wide through rural Norfolk’– Farmers’ fears over wind farm cable work
- Credit: copyright ARCHANT 2017
Norfolk farmers fear their land could take more than a decade to recover after trenches are dug to carry cables from major new offshore wind farms. As part of our series looking at the impact, Chris Hill spoke to landowners in the cable corridor.
Farmers can spend generations nurturing the soil and ecology which underpin their livelihood.
So to be told one day that the national need for green energy will require a massive cable trench to be carved through their fields has been met by many with anger and concern.
Some fear their land could take more than a decade to recover.
In all, more than 200 landowners will be affected by the two cable corridors which will need to be dug through vast swathes of fertile Norfolk farmland to connect three major wind farms being planned off the Norfolk coast.
Under their maximum design scenarios, about 2,500 acres could be affected by trenching work with a construction width of up to 100m, and the construction of substations and relay stations.
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The two Scandinavian energy firms behind the plans, Vattenfall and Orsted, said they had been working closely with landowners to find ways to minimise the impact of the work, avoiding hedgerows where possible and returning the land to its original state, with compensation paid for crop losses or land rendered unfarmable during construction.
But farmers are worried about the long-term damage to their land, particularly on heavier clay soils where drainage is an issue.
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Chris Allhusen, whose land at Bradenham Hall Farm near Dereham, is on the Vattenfall cable route, said: 'Green energy is fine, but driving a corridor 100m wide through rural Norfolk – there's nothing green about that at all. It is not possible to restore that kind of damage.
'They will be going through some of our stiffer clay soil. After that I won't be able to go near it for a couple of years. First, it would need to settle, and then it wouldn't drain.
'So there would be no crop at all for a couple of years, and then you are talking about a sliding scale of crop loss for 10-15 years.
'These are big wide trenches and they want to dig up to 12 of them through drains and ditches. They have not got a clue about how long it will take to recover through solid clay soil, so we are naturally very concerned about that.'
Danish energy firm Orsted is proposing a cable corridor of 80m wide and 55km long from its landfall at Weybourne to a substation at Swardeston, south of Norwich. Meanwhile Swedish firm Vattenfall is proposing a 100m wide corridor running 60km from Happisburgh to connect its Norfolk Vanguard and Norfolk Boreas projects to the National Grid at Necton, near Swaffham.
Those widths would be greatly reduced if the developers chose a DC (direct current) transmission option, which requires fewer cables than the AC (alternating current) option, and no relay stations. The use of the less-established DC technology has become a key demand from landowners, but the energy firms are not due to make that decision until after the Planning Inspectorate rules on the project permissions in 2019.
Edward de Feyter's family's 350-acre Atthills Farm in East Ruston, near Stalham, is one of two potential sites for an onshore relay station which would only be needed if Vattenfall opts for AC cables.
'The relay stations will be 10 acres and they want to plant them in the middle of a 25-acre field, so the land around the outside won't really be farmable,' he said. 'They want to plant trees in the surrounding field as well to screen it, so all told we will lose 30 acres of arable production.
'To lose that good arable land will be quite a blow, and it would be nearly impossible to replace it locally, because land does not come up for sale often. The solution to all of this would be for them to choose DC.'
Landowners have been urged to engage with developers as soon as possible to discuss mitigation requirements and negotiate compensation.
While compulsory purchase powers could be used to acquire any land or rights where attempts to reach a deal have been unsuccessful, both energy companies said they would prefer to reach voluntary commercial agreements.
One farmer who knows first-hand the disruption of onshore energy works is James Sheringham, whose farm at Necton was on the cable route for the Dudgeon wind farm, which formally opened last month.
'It took three times as long as they said it would to construct the cable corridor,' he said. 'It took three years. Even though it was only a 20m wide corridor we lost a lot of hedgerows and features we didn't want to lose. They are going to have to come here for quite a lot more years before it rights itself.
'We didn't have any crops for the last few years because the land was dug up and put to one side, with false track over most of it so they could move vehicles. For the next few years we will still be having wet areas and crop losses while the land settles. I wouldn't want another one (cable trench) however much compensation there is.
'It is a big upheaval to have a lot of people not knowing what they are doing, and ploughing up regardless, with no regard for soil structure damage.
'They were construction people, not farmers. In one area, they severed 22 land drains and you don't get those back very easily.'
ENERGY FIRMS' RESPONSE
Wind energy bosses said they are making every effort to minimise disruption to farmland and compensate farmers for crop losses.
Vattenfall's project manager Ruari Lean said: 'We are working with over 150 potential affected landowners to ensure that they are not out of pocket and indeed benefit because of our proposed works covering both projects. We want to get in, get out quickly and let landowners get on with what they do best.
'We propose to adopt a different approach to that chosen by other offshore developers constructing onshore electrical infrastructure. This approach means a much shorter total construction period of two years covering both projects – and for many landowners a matter of weeks – and is a crucial element in our proposed mitigation.
'Working with landowners and land managers from the start has allowed the project design team to understand the potential impacts of the construction on the farming businesses and have regard to these while designing the project and our construction methodology.'
Stuart Livesey, project development manager for Orsted, said: 'We've committed to returning the land to its original state and reasonable crop loss or unfarmable land during construction will be assessed and compensated for. We understand the importance of assessing soil structure before, during and after construction to ensure that the field drainage is maintained.
'We have already spoken with and consulted with many landowners, and farmers' concerns have already fed into the cable route design. We continue to engage with landowners and we'll appoint a drainage consultant and an agricultural liaison officer to ensure the process is managed properly.
'The environmental benefits due to the clean energy Hornsea Project Three will generate, will be independently assessed against any temporary environmental impact, and the project will need to demonstrate the benefits outweigh any environmental impact.'