DORSET’S sensitive and important habitats could be at risk if fracking is carried out, a report suggests.

Experts at the University of Reading have published a comprehensive study of the richness of habitats based on a new way of analysing biodiversity.

Senior author of the study, Dr Tom Oliver, said some of the areas earmarked for fracking contain some of the country’s richest wildlife sites.

The study analyses biodiversity by measuring the number of different species found in each 10km square area. It is based on variety and is not affected by how rare or common a particular species may be.

Dr Oliver said he hoped planners wold take note of the study.

He said: : “Dorset contains several environmental zones but the primary one is the lowland calcareous hills and variable lowlands. 

“This zone covers quite large extents of Southern England, but the all of the 10km squares with the highest ecological status (i.e. highest biodiversity value) occur in Dorset. 

“The entire county of Dorset has been opened for fracking licences by the government. 

“This includes the five 10x10km squares with the highest ecological status in the whole environmental zone. 

“Further detailed work could investigate the extent to which the wildlife in these squares may be damaged by fracking activities.”

It is hoped the study could help local planners make decisions about where fracking, or even housing developments should be placed.

Dr Oliver said: “At the moment a company looking to develop will pick a site, invest in it and pay money to carry out an environmental assessment. 

“That’s quite costly and time-consuming and the danger is, when there’s a certain level of investment, it’s potentially harder to go back and pick another area to develop if the one you have invested in is particularly rich in wildlife.”

He added that he hopes the comprehensive study will mean the environmental assessment step is considered before developers look to pick an area for housing.

The study’s authors produced two maps – one based on biodiversity from 1970 to 1990 and one based on biodiversity from 2000 to 2014.

This revealed that many areas that had experienced a decrease in endangered species - potentially making them appear good areas for fracking according to current assessment methods - had actually seen an increase in their wider biodiversity, making them more important to the UK’s wider ecosystem.

Dr Oliver said: “What we would like to do is follow up in detail the impact of fracking. You can’t make decisions about whether to progress without knowing what impact it will have.”