The giant windfarm proposed for the Isle of Lewis would destroy the island’s extraordinary beauty and remoteness.
The last time I took the ferry from Ullapool to the Isle of Lewis, the weather was glorious. I sat up on deck with my colleagues from the Scottish Wildlife Trust enjoying the sunshine, and the crystal clear views of the astounding landscapes of Scotland’s north-west coast. One of the things that struck me about my fellow passengers was the sheer number with binoculars slung around their necks. It reminded me just how popular wildlife watching has become in recent decades and, in turn, how the fragile economies of remote rural areas have benefited from it.
Our fascination with the natural world continues to grow – sometimes, it seems, in inverse proportion to the rate at which global wildlife is declining. Indeed, many people these days seem to need a regular dose of nature to keep a sense of perspective in their lives. This is not a groundless claim; scientific evidence tells us that those who have access to green spaces where they live are less stressed, have lower blood pressure and take more physical exercise than those in harsher, ‘grey’ environments. One study from the Netherlands has even quantified this by showing that for every 10% increase in green space, the number of health complaints fell to the average suffered by people five years younger.
So how is this relevant to the proposal (which thankfully Scottish ministers are “minded to refuse”) to put 181 wind turbines and 88 miles of road network on the Lewis peatlands, an area afforded special protection under European law? The point is we need places like the Lewis peatlands, we need places where protection of nature is first priority, not just for the sake of wildlife, but for our own well being as a species. A staggering 800,000 hectares of Europe’s land was converted to artificial surfaces between 1990 and 2000, a trend which has continued into this century and will no doubt continue into the future. Strict protection of the very best places for wildlife is therefore as high a priority as ever – albeit one which must be coupled with an imperative to restore the overall health of our ecosystems so they are fit to survive man-made climate change.
Safeguarding nature is the primary argument against permitting development on the Lewis peatlands, or indeed other protected areas – such as the sand dunes at Menie Links in Aberdeenshire, where Donald Trump seems insistent on building part of his golf course. It was on nature protection grounds that the Scottish Wildlife Trust submitted objections to both these proposals. But the rationale for nature protection should not be seen in isolation from wider socio-economic implications. In the case of Lewis, a report by DTZ Consulting commissioned by the RSPB concluded that anything more than a modest downturn in the tourist economy could lead to a net loss of jobs from the island. Add to this the huge scientific uncertainties on the question of whether more carbon will be lost from peat disturbance than saved by the operation of the turbines, and the arguments for rejecting the proposal become overwhelming.
In my opinion, Lewis has enormous potential to benefit from nature tourism in the future. Here is an island whose geographical position on the edge of Europe not only makes it ecologically unique, but also gives it an alluring, wild frontier feel which even the mountain landscapes of the mainland struggle to compete with – just the kind of place where people will flock to experience the awesome sense of wild space on the ‘moorlands’, or to see whales, golden eagles, storm petrels and red throated divers. If Lewis became ‘the wind farm island’, a vital source of income for its traditional crofting communities could be lost. Much the same principles apply to Trump’s golf course; if it could be located away from the protected area, the natural dune systems would form a spectacular backdrop to the golf course, perhaps attracting visitors to whom the environment is an important consideration and retaining a valuable recreational asset for local people. A rethink on design and location might even elevate Trump to ‘local hero’ status – as both an investor in the local economy, and guardian of Aberdeenshire’s coastal environment.
Protected areas must continue to do what they were designed to do – protect. Any erosion of their status will spell disaster for our tentative efforts to live in better balance with the natural world.
20 April 2008
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