Contentious plans for a windfarm in rural Buchan, which have been heavily criticised by locals, could finally be killed off by badgers.
Environmentalists say that several setts have been found on land near Hatton which is earmarked for a three-turbine development.
The discovery was made by conservation group Scottish Badgers, which believes that vehicles driving in and out of the site may already have caused disruption to the protected habitats.
It emerged that Aberdeenshire Council had failed to highlight the setts in an earlier environmental report.
The bid to build three 276ft turbines at Auchenten was tabled last year by Winchester doctor Gordon Masson and clean energy specialist Green Cat Renewables.
It drew more than 170 objections, including one from the owner of a nearby airfield who claimed the development could have a “detrimental impact” on flights.
Local councillors refused to back the scheme in October, but Dr Masson and Green Cat Renewables have appealed to the Scottish Government to try to overturn the local authority’s ruling.
The discovery of five badger setts on the land was made weeks before the government is due to deliver its verdict on the plan.
The badgers’ homes were not identified in an environmental report drawn up by Aberdeenshire Council as part of an initial consultation exercise.
Under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, it is an offence to wilfully take, kill or injure a badger, to obstruct, destroy or damage a sett, or to disturb a badger occupying a sett with intent or recklessly.
Objectors believe the setts will be the final nail in the coffin for the green energy plan, but Dr Masson insisted the discovery was not a “major concern” and would not stand in the way of his appeal.
Ian Hutchison, species protection officer at Scottish Badgers, visited the site earlier this month.
He said: “I was very concerned – given that the environmental assessment states there are no badgers present – by the amount of badger activity found in the area around the site.
“Although I did not spend time surveying the site, I found five setts.”
He said if the appeal is allowed, a thorough examination of the land would be needed and developers would have to come up with a suitable protection plan.
Mr Hutchison added he had “grave concerns” about how one of the setts would be safeguarded. “There are already indications that a vehicle has been driven over one of the spoil heaps associated with this sett,” he said.
A local authority spokesman said the planning department had expected that information to be lodged as part of the ecological survey was an “accurate reflection” of the site.
“In this case, it is disappointing that such a significant ecological feature has not been identified,” he said.
Campaigner David Moore, of Moss Croft, Slains, near Ellon, said: “These setts should have been highlighted months ago. I can’t see how this scheme can go ahead now, given that badgers are protected by law.”
Dr Masson, who lives at Hill Farm, Sutton Scotney, said: “This is not a major concern as the badger setts identified are nowhere near the locations for the turbines.”
No one from Green Cat Renewables was available to talk yesterday.
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