Building new housing estates on farmland would actually improve the environment in many instances, English Nature told the British Association science festival here on Tuesday.
By Jonathan Amos
BBC News Online science staff, in Salford
Spokesmen for the government's wildlife advisory body said intensive agriculture had driven many plants and animals out of the rural setting and sensible property development might be the best way to get them back.
Intensive farming has sent many species like the yellow wagtail into a steep decline
Dr Keith Porter said low-density developments with gardens and public open spaces would provide more favourable habitats for species than the giant pesticide-treated cereal fields that dominate much of the countryside now.
"By placing housing in these areas with innovative designs you can build in the corridors and the linkage the wildlife need to come back in," he said. "You would be certain to increase biodiversity."
His comments might seem to jar with the traditional position on development in the countryside but Dr Porter, an environmental information officer, said policies had to take account of economic realities.
"Three-quarters of our land is used by agriculture but the contribution to the GDP is only 1%," he explained.
"Clearly, in the hard world of economics, there are better ways to use the some of that land to create a more sustainable future, part of which is greater biodiversity."
Details of the where, why and why not
The government has unveiled plans to build hundreds of thousands of new houses in south-east England, to tackle a severe shortage of affordable homes.
The homes will go in the London-Cambridge M11 corridor, Milton Keynes, Thames Gateway and Ashford in Kent.
Dr Porter stressed his comments were not an argument for unrestrained development but he said English Nature would be working with planners to see that innovative design enhanced the prospects for wildlife.
"We need to put some of the structure back into the countryside which the efficiency of modern farming has taken out.
"This could enable animals and plants to move around and enable our hydrology, or water, systems to work again to alleviate some of the flooding we've seen in the cities."