Environment minister Mike Russell has denied that Scottish Natural Heritage caved in to political pressure to withdraw its objection to a wind farm in west Caithness.
The rebuttal came as a prominent local ornithologist claimed that an internationally important flock of geese would be endangered if the 21-turbine development on farmland near Westfield got the go-ahead.
The controversial application lodged by Baillie Wind Farm Limited is the subject of a special Highland Council planning hearing in Halkirk on Tuesday.
Mr Russell was challenged about the surprise removal of SNH’s long-standing objection.
The concern that the quango could have been subject to political interference came from a Far North resident and was taken up on his behalf by Highland councillor David Bremner.
In a lengthy written response, Mr Russell says SNH’s Golspie-based staff have been involved in the application since early 2003.
Mr Russell says colonies of greylag geese, Greenland white-fronted geese and whooper swans roost on Loch Calder and Broubster Leans, protected nature sites near to where the turbines are earmarked to go up.
SNH in 2004 lodged holding objections centring both on the impact on birdlife, otters, Atlantic salmon and the lochs, and on landscape and visual impact.
Last year, SNH had amended this to a challenge on the lochs and a conditional objection about the effect on otters and salmon. By August 2007, further information had enabled it to drop these outstanding concerns.
Mr Russell says SNH is now satisfied the wind farm would not have a “significant” effect on whooper swans and white-fronted geese. Its focus centres on greylags, which it accepts could be “significantly affected”.
A study estimated that 11 greylags could be killed each year by flying into turbines. Out of a local population of 7190, however, this was not viewed as likely to have an adverse effect on the species.
Mr Russell concludes: “I hope this information addresses your concerns and I assure you that SNH’s decision has in no way been influenced by Government.”
Mr Bremner, one of four Landward Caithness members of the Highland Council and the county’s new civic leader, made it clear yesterday that as a member of the planning committee he has kept a strictly neutral view.
“One of my constituents raised concern that he believed there had been political interference in SNH dropping its objection,” he said. “Because I’m on the planning committee, there was no way I could comment either on the application or on the allegation he made.
“However, I agreed to raise it on his behalf with the minister and to pass on the response, which I have done.”
Objectors remain unconvinced by Mr Russell’s denial.
David Craig, of Caithness Windfarm Information Forum, said: “I was an avid fan of Yes Minister where official denials about something generally meant what was being claimed was true. I strongly suspect political interference in the process.
“SNH were holding out on this and then all of a sudden, after we get a new Government, it withdraws its objection.”
Mr Craig said SNH would appear to be justifying its position solely by reference to the information in the environmental assessment provided by the developers. He said: “The developers obviously have a vested interest in not going the whole hog and being totally up front and honest.”
He said it was astonishing the nature agency appeared to have failed to take into account the bird surveys carried out over the past 35-plus years by Stan Laybourne.
“SNH have a stack of reports done by Stan of the area covered by the wind farm but none of that material appears to have been used to base their decision to withdraw its objection,” Mr Craig said. “This is independent data verified over the years by an expert and they have chosen to ignore it – I think that is appalling.”
Mr Craig said he lived for many years near the wind-farm site and got used to seeing “wave after wave” of Greenland white-fronted geese flying over his house between September and May.
Mr Laybourne, who lives at Harpsdale, said yesterday he too was puzzled as to why SNH chose not to use his bird records. He said some of his survey work was used by SNH to designate the nature sites in the area.
Mr Laybourne’s prime concern is for the Greenland white-fronts, which have a dwindling worldwide population of 25,000. He said there used to be annual flock of about 200 in the Westfield area, though that had fallen to about 175.
He said the goose was a priority species in the SNH-endorsed biodiversity plan. The Caithness flock, while smallish, would be particularly important if something disastrous were to happen to the major colonies in Islay and Ireland.
He said: “These must be the priority but SNH has concentrated on greylags. For some reason I can’t fathom, they have satisfied themselves about Greenland white-fronts on the basis of the environmental assessment produced by the developers.”
He added: “There’s no question in my mind that there would be considerable casualties among white-fronts feeding in the area neighbouring the wind-farm site. It’s just mind-blowing that SNH don’t see how vulnerable they would be.”
Mr Laybourne made it clear he is not in principle opposed to wind farms when they are sited sensitively to the needs of people and nature.
In a statement issued yesterday, SNH said it is supportive of renewables and believes in working with the industry to advise on potential natural heritage impacts.
A spokesman said that as a statutory consultee on the Baillie proposal it had initially lodged an objection due to unresolved concerns. He said: “Since that initial response, we have been given additional information and details of mitigation measures to address our earlier concerns.
“This has enabled us to withdraw the last remaining objection point regarding impacts to the Caithness Lochs Special Protection Area in August this year.” This had included the updated calculations of the risk of turbine collision to greylag geese.
Pressed on the agency’s alleged snubbing of Mr Laybourne’s concerns, the spokesman said: “Stan’s work is well known to us and he has prepared data for SNH on a number of occasions in the past. On Tuesday, he contacted Lesley Cranna, our area manager, after last getting in touch with us in relation to potential risk issues at this planned wind farm in March 2006.
“He has requested a response to issues about white-fronted geese and we are happy to do so. We are in dialogue with Stan and are preparing answers to his points.”
The spokesman said the claim about political interference had been answered by Mr Russell.
Meanwhile, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has maintained its objection as it says the developer’s environmental assessment underestimates the potential risk to all three species.
30 November 2007
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