A tiny number of individuals and enterprises own the largest part of Scotland.
Much has been said about that singular fact. Less often discussed is a singular consequence: when controversy erupts over wind farm developments, it tends to settle like a cloud over the precious, beautiful places owned, as often as not, by a few rich people.
We hold that wind-generated energy must be an essential part of the mix if a sustainable, “decarbonised” Scotland is to be achieved. We also believe that “renewables” have a vast economic potential. We are not blind, however, to the complaints of those who see wind farms blighting unique landscapes, who suffer the nuisance – and worse – of turbines, who fear for wildlife, or who question a rush to harvest the wind.
The proposals from Buccleuch and 2020 Renewables are a near-textbook case. The developers make the standard arguments: jobs, economic potential, community benefits, and “a major land use strategy”. But the site chosen for “up to” 140 turbines lies within the Lowther Hills, near Wanlockhead in Dumfries and Galloway. Why the Lowthers?
The obvious answer is that the Duke of Buccleuch and his family firm own the spot. The UK’s largest private landowner might be unhappy with the SNP’s proposals for land reform, but his right to develop his land remains. Nevertheless, it is worth asking why a major project needs to take place anywhere near the Muirkirk and North Lowther Uplands Special Protection Area (SPA).
The SPA moorland is of “outstanding interest” for its breeding birds and the variety of its habitats. Red grouse bred for the gun are common, but five species of European importance – hen harrier, short-eared owl and golden plover among them – are also found there. These are, in the jargon, “Annex I” birds, covered by the 1992 EU Habitats Directive. They exist in a wild, special place.
The developers have dropped plans, it appears, to raise turbines on the SPA itself. They speak instead of creating “extensive and detailed habitat management plans to enable positive and innovative peatland and heather restoration”. Until the claims are tested, we must take them at their words. Still a question remains unanswered: why is it inevitable that wind farms should exist in the North Lowther Uplands and not in areas less valuable?
One way or another, the planning process – and if needs be the Scottish Government – will decide. Experience says the process is sturdier than many protesters imagine. Schemes are rejected, by councils and government, on a regular basis. The fact that protests happen is a reminder, for all that, of what is at stake.
We need clean, reliable energy. We also need to protect what is irreplaceable and vital to a country. Amid the arguments, wind farms continue to be proposed for the most beautiful places in Scotland rather than derelict industrial land. This is not an ideal strategy for the future of a crucial technology. Wind does not blow only where vistas are best.
Much attention is paid to the benefits derived by local communities from such developments. That is as it should be: people count as much as wildlife. We need to think harder, however, about the spread of a new industry across the face of Scotland.
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