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Opposition to the proposed wind farm development on western Lesvos

I have been visiting Lesvos annually for 13 years and am the author of A Birdwatching Guide to Lesvos. I know and love the island and I am fortunate that I know the island, its people and its wildlife intimately.

I have worked within the scientific study of birds (ornithology) for over 25 years. I have worked for the RSPB, the British Trust for Ornithology and have been the Senior Administrator at the British Ornithologists’ Union (BOU) for the last 15 years. At the BOU I work with leading ornithologists and ecologists from around world including in recent years facilitating three international conferences on climate change and the use of renewable energy technology and their impacts on wildlife and the environment. The output from these BOU conference can be seen on the BOU website at http://www.bou.org.uk/bouprocnet/proceedings-online/.

My freelance work as a professional bird and wildlife tour guide first brought me to Lesvos. Over the last 13 years I have built an extensive knowledge of the island’s birdlife and wider wildlife. I also have an intimate knowledge of eco-tourism, having worked in this sector for over 20 years.

As you can see I am well placed to be able to personally bring together in a single submission the various impacts of the proposed wind farm development in western Lesvos.

1. Environmental impacts
Western Lesvos comprises a mosaic habitat including large expanses of the fragile phrygena scrub. This is possibly the finest example of phrygena scrub, if not in Greece, certainly within the whole of the Aegean region. This phrygena scrub on Lesvos, and importantly the phrygena scrub in the direct area of the proposed developments, holds 98% of Europe’s population of Cinereous Bunting Emberiza cineracea (Greece holds 100% of the European population of the species, with the remaining birds on Chios, also threatened by this development). Greek ecologists are quite rightly proud of this, but this also requires a degree of responsibility in caring for the habitat of this species. It is estimated that these development will impact on 50% of the population.

The phrygena scrub is also home to a huge variety of wildlife, so these developments threaten a wide range of flora and fauna throughout the west of the island.

There are two main threats from wind turbines in sensitive areas such as the phrygena scrub of western Lesvos. The construction phase and the operation phase.

The construction phase is the greatest threat to the passerine populations of the phrygena scrub in the proposed development area. The impacts of such developments are clearly illustrated in the recent paper by Pearce-Higgins et al (2012). This paper concludes:

§ The rapid increase in the development of renewable energy required to combat climate change has lead to a proliferation of onshore wind farm technology. These have the potential to affect birds through disturbance during construction or collision during operation.
§ Monitoring data collected from upland wind farms located in the UK clearly had a negative impact on population densities in the area of the wind farms during and post construction.
§ There was little evidence for consistent post-construction population declines in any species, suggesting for the first time that wind farm construction can have greater impacts upon birds than wind farm operation.
§ The impacts of wind farms were largely unaffected by technical specifications (turbine height, number or total generating power) and therefore are widely applicable.
§ The study confirmed that regulatory authorities and developers should particularly consider the likely impacts of wind farms during construction phase. Greater weight should be given to the effects of construction on wildlife in impact assessments than at present. Mitigation measures during construction should be considered and tested as a means to reduce these negative effects.

The operational impact of wind farms is already widely understood, and large developments can have significant impacts on larger bird species such as raptors, storks and herons, impacting on both local breeding populations and migrants passing through the area (Nygard et al. 2010).

Our understanding of operation impacts is still growing and has recently taken a huge leap forward with recent work undertaken on the vision of birds and their ability to adjust their rate of gain of information to meet the perceptual challenge of the environment. That is, can a flying bird slow down sufficiently to meet a new perceptual challenge presented by decreased visibility or a sudden increase in complexity posed by the intrusion of obstacles into an otherwise open airspace? (Martin, 2010).

The short answer is that many species aren’t able to adjust to such changes in their environment. A bird’s perception of space is very different to ours. A flying bird moves through open space populated as a part of the natural environment in which very little, other than other birds and animals, move. Birds are not able to compute the addition of moving objects to their natural environment, this is widely understood with bird strikes on fast moving aircraft, or birds unable to avoid moving cars on roads because the speed of travel/movement is outside the understanding of a birds’ perception of speed and movement. Moving wind turbines come within this sphere, and apart from their great speed, they are also near-invisible when in rotation.

The potential impacts of both construction and operation of the proposed developments are not just significant, but are potentially huge on such a fragile ecosystem as the phrygena scrub region of western Lesvos.

The proposed developments are also within the current Geopark status area and Natura 2000 protected area. What impact will these developments have on the proposal to extend the Geoaprk status to the whole island. Or maybe the local governors and Greek government don’t care about such statuses and think nature is redundant when it comes to development. At any cost.

2. Eco-tourism
So what cost might make local governors and Greek government pay attention to?

With so much focus placed on the environmental impact of the proposed wind farm developments, I wonder what, if any, assessment has been made on the wider socio-economic impacts of these developments?

Lesvos is a favoured destination for birdwatchers, botanists, geologists and general wildlife interested people. I imagine that if surveyed, most visitors to the island would include the natural beauty of the island as a major part of why they choose to visit Lesvos and why many return.

Lesvos is rightly the premier migrant birdwatching location in Europe. Thousands of birders visit the island annually from across the world. But this could all stop if the natural environment is ignored and developments of this kind are ridden rough shot over the needs of wildlife and the concerns of those interested in preserving and enjoying the island’s nature.

Birders are a powerful group. They deliver significant income to the local Lesvos economy. For several resorts, in particular the key birders’ resort of Skala Kallonis, they are a vital part of the local economy with the average weekly local (i.e. excluding flights and airport benefits) benefit somewhere between €500-750 per birder per week (accommodation, car rental, taverna/food, fuel, other spending). This is not insignificant, especially when this spend is so localised to one or two areas of the island.

To illustrate the power of birders just look at the Mediterranean island of Malta. It too is a major migration hotspot and should be as popular as Lesvos. But the vast majority of European birders refuse to visit the island despite this because of the barbaric hunting of wild birds on the island which both the local government and EU fail to act against. So we act and we do not go there. It is estimated that Malta’s eco-tourism (mainly birders) is less than 5% of projected levels if the hunting problem was resolved.

British birders in particular are one of the largest lobby groups in Europe. In Britain over 1.2 million bird lovers are members of the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds). Earlier this year birdwatchers mobilized in opposition to UK government proposals to cull the Common Buzzard Buteo buteo. Within weeks the UK government had done a complete U-turn and dropped all such proposals due to the huge scale of the opposition and ferocity of feeling against them.

Let me leave the local Lesvos governors and national Greek government in no doubt that that they risk losing most of their eco-tourism if they fail to protect the natural landscapes of the island and the wildlife within it.

I have already engaged British and European birders on this issue via my Lesvos Birding website (www.lesvosbirding.com – 60,000+ views a year). Thousands of birders all around the globe are aware of these proposals and the scale of opposition is huge as many have already expressed to me personally their opposition and many will make their opposition known to environmental NGOs, national governments, etc. On behalf of birders visiting Lesvos, past, present and future, let me express our collective opposition to the wind farm proposals and our concern of the environmental and socio-economic impacts these developments will have on the island.

In recent weeks birders have already begun to lobby UK and other European bodies to take this issue up with national governments and the EU. Greek is in debt to the rest of Europe and birders across Europe are telling their local governments that they object to Greece’s treatment of the natural environment (not just with these wind farm proposals) and they expect our governments to act against Greece in order to preserve their natural environment. The UK and Germany (two of the largest tourism groups for Lesvos) both have advanced legislation to protect our natural environments and are central to forming EU wildlife legislation.

I have also engaged the main UK holiday charter company flying in to Lesvos, Thomas Cook, on this issue. In recent years charter flights have been extended to facilitate the increased birding tourists visiting the island. I have a meeting later this month with Thomas Cook to discuss with them their response to the possibility of losing a significant percentage of their Lesvos customer base and have encouraged them to discuss this with their European counterparts who similarly stand to lose significant numbers of customers.

Can local governors and Greek government seriously risk a major reduction in eco-tourism during their current economic crisis? Are they willing to further add to the economic misery of their citizens by deepening the impact of the economic crisis on areas such as Lesvos which have a greater ability to ride the current crisis? To inflict hotel and taverna closures and increased unemployment on a small island economy?

If the proposed wind farm developments proceed then the damage this will inevitably do to the Lesvos natural landscape, wildlife and local economy will be irreversible.

Steve Dudley
Author, A birdwatching guide to Lesvos
Proprietor, Lesvosbirding.com (www.lesvosbirding.com)

Martin, G.R. 2010. Bird collisions: a visual or a perceptual problem? BOU Proceedings – Climate Change and Birds.

Nygård, T., Bevanger, K., Dahl, E.L., Flagsted, Ø., Follestad, A., Hoel, P.H., May, R. & Reitan, O. 2010. A study of White-tailed Eagle movements and mortality at a wind farm in Norway. BOU Proceedings – Climate Change and Birds.

Pearce-Higgins, J., Stephen, L., Douse, A. & Langston, R. 2012. Greater impacts of wind farms on bird populations during construction than subsequent operation: results of a multi-site and multi-species analysis. Jnl App. Ecology. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2664.2012.02110.x