A much-needed move towards cleaner energy must not be at the “expense” of Scotland’s biodiversity, conservation and wildlife experts have urged.
Offshore wind developments off the coast of Scotland could present the future for clean energy supply, but it is not without impact on its surroundings.
Noise is just one of the concerns by wildlife campaigners. From the drilling and construction in the early stages to the hubbub of its daily operation, which could lead to behavioural changes of marine life.
As a home to hundreds of thousands of seabirds, the structures could also impact Scotland’s globally important colonies such as Northern gannets, and kittiwakes which are already declining.
An RSPB report which described the country as the “UK’s seabird stronghold” warned that the number of Scotland’s breeding seabirds has almost been halved since the 1980s.
However, the ‘Powering Healthy Seas: Accelerating Nature Positive Offshore Wind’ report suggests that offshore wind could even act as a “key driver to achieve positive change” for sea life.
Esther Brooker, a marine policy officer at Scottish Environment LINK said: “There’s an urgency around the climate crisis, and we do need to be moving rapidly and like a large scale to cleaner energy, but there is also biodiversity crisis.
“We can’t do that at the expense of biodiversity, particularly, where there is a role of diversity in the climate crisis, the resilience of our seas, and the health of our seas.”
Just ticking a box?
Earlier this year, prospective wind farm Berwick Bank was forced to reduce the massive area it encompassed to, among other factors, reduce its expected impact on seabirds in the area.
However, as it stands the structure will still occupy land spanning across 845 sq km.
One expert warned that current wildlife protection feels like a “box-ticking exercise” for the major energy corporations driving offshore developments.
A researcher at the University College London, Catharine Horswill, warned that important data that is already “out there” is not being considered in existing wildlife risk assessments.
“The reality is that most of the seabirds in the UK are already declining, we have a huge problem with our seabirds,” she said.
“Analyses that have been conducted don’t actually account for the fact many of the populations are already declining. So, they assume stable population dynamics, they assume a stable population trend.”
“I’m a huge advocate of green energy, but let’s do it in a way that we can also minimize the impact that we’re putting on these already struggling species.”
The researcher said offshore windfarms create two distinct risks to seabirds: an increase in deaths due to collisions with turbine blades and displacement, especially from key foraging areas for the birds.
“The key thing with seabirds is that they are very long-lived species like humans,” she added.
That means a death of a fully grown bird could have serious impact on the breeding of the colony.
Dr Horswill said: “There’s no reason why the juveniles won’t be hit as well, but the effect on the population size is going to be greater if you’re killing adults.”
Could offshore wind drive recovery?
However, offshore wind developments have a “huge potential to do something really revolutionary in terms of marine conservation”, the researcher added.
She said: “You have these industries that have so much money and we could be forcing them to put it into marine conservation.”
In the report on ‘powering healthy seas’, the RSPB also suggests that planning systems have “failed to keep pace” with the development and scale of offshore wind.
The charity has urged the UK Government to ensure robust ecological evidence leads the placement of new development, to set out country-level marine plans and to support innovative industry standards.
It also emphasised that the cumulative impact of multiple developments must be analysed, measures to reduce harm must be monitored regularly as well as urging for a strategic approach to compensation for affected species.
Catharine Kelham, senior consultation partner at RSPB Scotland, said: “There needs to be a collaborative and a strategic approach with effective planning, and it needs to be supported financially.
“There will be a cost involved and that cost needs to be borne out and funding needs to be provided for this work.
“In terms of the road ahead, I don’t think it’s going to be a particularly easy road, but I do think that perhaps the start of the road is in sight.”
Dr Horswill said there it is not the case of a “one rule fits all” and each wind farm development should assess the needs of the local seabird population and other environmental demands.
Nature pays dividends
The key to a symbiosis of offshore wind and a thriving ecosystem could lie in sand eel fisheries, which many species rely on.
“One of the biggest pressures on many seabirds in the North Sea is sand eel availability,” Dr Horswill said and suggested wind farms could take on the responsibility of reducing fishing pressures.
“It would be asking the wind farm developers to basically buy a quota of the sand eel fishery and preventing that fishing from happening. So, you then have more fish available to the birds.”
However, this type of link between these two industries is still “quite a long way off”, she said.
Meanwhile, the RSPB is urging for the full closure sand eel fisheries in the UK to help species such as kittiwakes which have seen a 70% decline since 1986 due to fall in the availability of the fish.
Investments into conservation could include creating artificial nesting structures, with the Hornsea Four offshore wind farm south of the border reusing a platform for a dedicated kittiwake site.
However, with seabird numbers already declining colonies already have growing space for new nests.
“So, building nesting space is not necessarily going to help them to bolster numbers,” Dr Horswill said.
“I think we need to be looking at them really carefully to know whether they’re successful or not. Before we just like start working off everywhere and saying, ‘we’re doing compensation, it’s fine’.”
Offshore wind could have the capacity to power the whole of Scotland with renewable energy, but to be truly sustainable it must invest in maintaining biodiversity.
RSPB’s Catharine Kelham added: “We know we have a cost-of-living crisis that needs to be invested in, but we know nature pays dividends as well.”
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