An international conservation body has made a last-minute appeal to Scottish Ministers to reject the planned Strathy South wind farm, warning it could prevent the area from being designated as a World Heritage site.
But the intervention by the International Mire Conservation Group (IMCG), has triggered a clash involving RSPB Scotland and SNP’s Rob Gibson, MSP for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross.
Power giant Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) want to build a 39-turbine development on the site of a non-native conifer tree plantation in the heart of Sutherland’s Flow Country, some 12 kilometres south of Strathy village.
SSE has already constructed a 33-turbine site at Strathy North.
The proposal has divided opinion, with local communities strongly in favour because of the financial benefits promised, but conservationists, including RSPB, against.
A public inquiry was held in June 2015 and a report on the findings was sent to Scottish ministers on February 24, according to the website of the government’s Planning and Environmental Appeal Division. A decision is expected shortly.
The international Mire Conservation Group was founded in Austria in 1984 to promote the conservation of mires – stretches of swamps or bogs. Its secretary-general, Professor Hans Joosten, sent an open letter on March 1 to Fergus Ewing, Minister for Business, Energy and Tourism.
Professor Joosten wrote that the IMCG had learned with “some bewilderment and dismay” about the Strathy South proposal.
He stated: “While the construction of windfarms is an understandable response to the need for the generation of energy from renewable sources, placing such a development within the heart of the Flow Country landscape risks repeating many of the acknowledged mistakes made during the era of forestry expansion in the Flow Country.”
Professor Joosten points out that the Flow Country is on the “UK Tentative list” to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
He said: “The proposed development could have a significantly negative impact on any formal application for the area to be considered for world heritage status.”
He concludes: “The IMCG strongly urges the Scottish Government to refuse the application to construct a windfarm at Strathy South.
“The IMCG urges the Scottish Government to continue its support for more appropriate initiatives capable of ensuring the long-term future of this very special place.”
In light of the IMCG letter, RSPB Scotland has taken the opportunity to reiterate its own opposition to Strathy South. In a statement issued last week, the organisation’s head of planning Aedán Smith said: “This open letter from IMCG shows that the reputation of the wind industry in Scotland is at risk at a global level if Scottish Ministers allow Strathy South to go ahead.”
Mr Smith stressed that RSPB was against the development not just because of its impact on the peatland but also because it would put sensitive species such as hen harriers, red-throated divers, greenshanks and wood sandpipers at risk.
He said: “Continued growth of renewable energy in Scotland is crucial in order to protect people and nature from climate change.
“A poll last week showed 70 per cent of people in Scotland want to see more energy from renewables like wind energy and RSPB Scotland is in complete agreement.
“But, if we want to retain this public support we need to make sure we don’t sacrifice our protected species and habitats by consenting poorly-planned proposals.”
MSP Rob Gibson has turned his fire on RSPB in the wake of its statement, accusing the group of “ignoring the human rights of fragile local communities which support the proposal (Strathy South).”
He said: “RSPB has a poor record in consulting with communities where it owns large tracts of land. Part four of the Land Reform Bill is aimed at setting tougher conditions to ensure that landlords who have failed to consult local people do so in future.
“Indeed many MSPs wish to see sanctions added to the bill against arrogant disregard for the wishes of local communities.
“It is high time RSPB and other conservation groups took local human rights as seriously as they demand respect for biodiversity, carbon storage and landscapes.”
SSE has also had its say, stating: “One of the leading experts in the UK on the impact of wind farms on peatland, Dr Tom Dargie, has a contrasting view to that presented by the RSPB. He says that research shows ‘that in addition to the likely short carbon payback period for the wind farm itself, the large scale peatland restoration proposed will, over time, capture further substantial amounts of atmospheric carbon’.
“We look forward to the report from the Strathy South public inquiry.”
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