Alex Salmond has been urged to “show real leadership” by rejecting a large wind farm that campaigners say threatens to submerge an area of wild land under a “forest of steel turbines the height of the Forth Bridge”.
The 67-turbine Stronelairg project in the Monadhliath mountains above Loch Ness will be the biggest onshore wind farm in the Highlands if it goes ahead.
It has won the backing of councillors, and the final decision will now go to ministers in what mountaineering and wild land groups believe is an important test case for the Scottish Government.
Its approval by Highland councillors, despite opposition from groups including Scottish Natural Heritage, the environment agency, follows recent suggestions that the First Minister is ready to perform an about turn on renewable energy by identifying areas of wild land that should be free of wind farms.
SNH is drawing up maps that could offer a level of protection to around 28 per cent of Scotland.
But campaigners have reacted sceptically to the claim that Mr Salmond is ready to row back on his pro-renewables rhetoric, and say they would regard approval of the Stronelairg project, or the equally controversial Allt Duine scheme at Kincraig on the edge of the Cairngorms National Park, as proof that nothing has changed.
The Mountaineering Council of Scotland said: “Recent media reports suggest that Mr Salmond has begun listening to those who care for Scotland’s countryside, but he has so far done nothing.”
It added that the time had come for the First Minister to show real leadership by “acting to protect our mountains in this Year of Natural Scotland, through the implementation of new and effective planning policy”.
David Gibson, MCofS chief officer, said the Monadhliaths should be “cherished and protected” for the nation and visitors to enjoy, rather than “industrialised” for profits.
He added: “We are sceptical of the Scottish Government’s commitment to protecting wild land in mountain areas based on what we have seen to date.”
He said the proposed project was massive, covering an area around the size of Inverness, with 443ft turbines that could be seen from the national park and from many of Scotland’s mountain tops.
The proposed Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) development would be built on the Garrogie Estate, near Fort Augustus.
Stronelairg is one of six wind farms either built or proposed on the west side of Loch Ness and Helen McDade, head of policy for the John Muir Trust, Scotland’s wild land charity, said the potential loss of wild land was “very concerning” from a tourism and environmental point of view.
She added: “Although Stronelairg won’t be visible from the main road, once people stop and go to their bed and breakfasts and then out into the hills for a walk, or drive on the minor roads, it is going to have a massive impact. The trust has called for a public inquiry into the project.
The Cairngorms National Park Authority has also objected, insisting the landscape and visual impact along the edge of the park would be “significant, adverse, and in some locations, overwhelming”.
A spokesman for SSE Renwables welcomed Monday’s decision by councillors, adding: “The proposed scheme has been carefully designed to avoid being seen from the main tourist routes and iconic attractions of the Great Glen, including Loch Ness.
“Using SNH’s own criteria, the environmental impact assessment for the project concluded that the site does not constitute wild land. The council’s planning report also states that ‘human activity and development’ has become ‘part of the landscape’ in the area and that the ‘impact on wild land is not considered to be significant enough for objections to be raised with the Scottish Government’.”
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