A new report shows that Scotland's Wild Land Areas are being reduced by development; yet the Scottish Government's draft national planning policy fails to address the loss of this priceless resource. Stronger protection for wild landscape is urgently needed, argues James Fenton of the Scottish Wild Land Group.
I'm a lot more interested in promoting biodiversity than in preserving how wild a place "feels" to modern domesticated humans. They're two completely separate issues which are often conflated. We've profited immensely from, for example, North sea oil and gas, which has been out of sight and out of mind whilst enabling for many of us the lifestyle that allows us to travel to wild places and enjoy them. If the impact of renewable energy infrastructure is primarily visual impact then that's a tiny price to pay for the benefits of weening us off fossil fuels, particularly since hydro and wind offer the British isles energy independence in an increasingly uncertain world. The alternative is new nuclear, for example at the Wylfa or repowering Trawsfynydd. I wonder how the author would feel about that if he lived in North Wales?
Absolutely right. Not only that, but *all* of the so-called wild places in Britain have been affected in some way by human activity. Deforestation, grazing, culling of predators, air pollution, micro-plastics.... The list goes on and on, but so long as the author can't see wind turbine blade tips on the horizon they can continue to indulge their fantasy.
> Absolutely right. Not only that, but *all* of the so-called wild places in Britain have been affected in some way by human activity. Deforestation, grazing, culling of predators, air pollution, micro-plastics.... The list goes on and on, but so long as the author can't see wind turbine blade tips on the horizon they can continue to indulge their fantasy.
I'm not sure how helpful it is to set one group of people who care about our outdoors environment against another group of people who care about our outdoors environment. The author makes reference to 'green-on-green conflict', and I think it preferable to all those who care to share ideas and attempt to develop consensus positions, instead of attempting to claim that one position trumps any other. Whatever is done will almost certainly need to be a compromise, and may well vary across different locations.
My reading of the article is that they don't care so much about our outdoors environment as they do about their own experience of it. I'm all for preserving the areas of wilderness that we have left on the planet, but almost by definition that would mean severely restricting access to them. I'm certainly not in favour of that in Scotland.
Cards on the table, I've spent the last 15 years mostly working in renewables and I've spent the last 5 years working on a fleet of medium scale wind turbines and hydro sites scattered around farms on Wales. I've seen how new income streams make hill farmers less dependent on overgrazing and I've also seen how severely regulations have limited the roll out of renewables since 2010.
I'd like to be able to reach some sort of consensus position, but when the opposing position is based on an ineffable sense of "wildness" rather than measurable outcomes (eg biodiversity and a decarbonised grid) it's hard to see where that could be found.
> I'd like to be able to reach some sort of consensus position, but when the opposing position is based on an ineffable sense of "wildness" rather than measurable outcomes (eg biodiversity and a decarbonised grid) it's hard to see where that could be found.
I would say that the 'opposing position' is one where landowners can do what they want with no constraints in their hill-track building activities, where any kind of development - renewables or any kind of leisure activity - faces little regulation, and where the experience of the recreational user is cast aside in favour of economic considerations.
You may wish to see greater biodiversity, but you do not explain why that trumps a desire to reduce the numbers of scars inflicted on our landscape by landowners and developers.
> I would say that the 'opposing position' is one where landowners can do what they want with no constraints in their hill-track building activities, where any kind of development - renewables or any kind of leisure activity - faces little regulation, and where the experience of the recreational user is cast aside in favour of economic considerations.
That's not what I'm arguing for. At heart I'm a socialist and I'd like to see the huge estates nationalised. In that fantasy world there could be a meaningful public debate on how to manage the commons effectively in everyone's interests - until then we are, as you say, at the whim of economic considerations.
> You may wish to see greater biodiversity, but you do not explain why that trumps a desire to reduce the numbers of scars inflicted on our landscape by landowners and developers.
Well, let me try. As humans, our presence on the planet, particularly since industrialisation but before as well, has been utterly malignant. As a species we've expanded into almost every nook and cranny on the planet, exploited every resource we've discovered. As far as we know life is unique to this planet and it's variety is a fantastic and beautiful thing. Our activities have lead directly or indirectly to the extinction of countless species and the rate of species extinction is accelerating. We've discovered 5 major extinction events in the fossil record and it seems that we have precipitated the 6th by our actions. More to the point, we're aware of it and yet we're doing very little to change course.
This island has been battered more than most by humanity but there are still some rare ecosystems remaining, particularly in the mountains. Climate change is pushing sub-alpine flora and fauna further up the hill at the expense of the delicate alpine ecosystems that have clung on there since the ice receded.
We're aware of these processes and the destruction that we've caused and are continuing to cause by our action and inaction. I think we have a duty to at least try to halt the catastrophe unfolding around us and I think that that absolutely trumps our right as hillwalkers to enjoy a preserved and dessicated Victorian landscape.
> The alternative is new nuclear, for example at the Wylfa or repowering Trawsfynydd. I wonder how the author would feel about that if he lived in North Wales?
I would rather have a small scale nuclear power plant rather than the equivalent generating capacity of on shore wind turbines. The power plant can be partially hidden behind tree covered earthworks to make it more discreet, the wind turbines obviously can't.
Off shore wind farms are more efficient, less visually intrusive and provide breeding grounds for fish away from trawlers.
I totally get your point about not wanting further industrialisation of beautiful areas although my understanding is that new nuclear in north Wales is considered desirable due to the number of jobs it would create.
I'd second just about all the points you raise.
I do struggle with the idea of our malignant affect on the environment though. This is despite all the baggage associated with certain philosophies' historical championing of the idea that humanity has dominion over nature and all the more recent, evidence of oil interest lobbying/cover-ups etc. etc.
There's such a heady/intoxicating mix of the benefits the fossil fuel era has brought (travel and all the secondary benefits that offers to social cohesion, modern medicine, food production/preservation etc.) against its major costs that its hard to not lean towards an general 'positive' trend for humanity - this has after all been the general arc for most of the world. I say this as someone who supports direct action if nothing else but to force media trends back onto this story-of-all-stories.
Back on point, I'd reiterate that maximising aesthetic value is a luxury we've long since lost (but again, caveating that this shouldn't be taken to mean unregulated development).
Completely agree on the small scale nuclear power plant, we've had the technology for years to drastically reduce our CO2 output from energy production....
Newclear energy seems attractive but it takes ~10 yrs to design a plant, another ~10 yrs to build and commission then another 10/15yrs to offset the carbon generated. By the time you've got a working plant the technology is super out of date, not to mention the most expensive way of generating energy.
Offshore wind is hit with even more stake holders wanting to use the offshore space than onshore wind and whilst the capacity factors are higher, it's still more expensive on a LCOE basis.
The matter of the fact is, if we want to reach Net Zero (which we have to and fast), we need to more than double our onshore wind capacity whilst also installing 150GW of offshore wind (we currently have 10GW) and building more pumped storage capability. Obviously there will be a balance to meet with ensuring biodiversity is not damaged but i'm afraid you might have to see a few spinning turbine blades.
If hills were rewilded you'd barely see the wind turbines, or access tracks, as you walk through woods upto 700 or 800m. They only stand out now because over grazing has killed anything growing higher than heather height.
I'm not sure about that. Take the biggest onshore wind farm in the UK, at Whitelee south of Glasgow.
There are 215 turbines with a rotor diameter of 90m (so we'll over 100m total height) across an area of 55km2. Even if there were abundant trees, which wouldn't be good as they produce turbulence, they would fail to hide the turbines.
The total output from Whitelee is only slightly more (539MW) than a single proposed Rolls Royce SMR (470MW) with a foot print of 1 or 2km2.
Just to reaffirm, I'm pro off shore wind, but against our hills and mountains being blighted by turbines.
I'm surprised at the strength of disagreement in these comments tbh. I guess part of the problem is that the feeling of 'wildness' and 'remoteness' is quite subjective, and some people will value it while others won't. I guess the author has exaggerated the state of things too - eg "In the Highlands today, it is hard to be more than a mile or two from a bulldozed vehicle track, a forestry plantation or a mobile phone mast." isn't quite true I don't think.
However, I agree with at least some of the sentiment. Maybe I'm only speaking for myself and a minority, but the beauty of the landscape, feeling of remoteness and being away from it all, as well as the physical and mental challenge / activity involved in being in the mountains are really valuable to me. If the first two didn't matter then we'd all be going for walks round the local town centre or climbing at a wall rather than heading for the hills. For me, massive access tracks (be they for the shooting parties that incentivise keeping moorland barren, or for maintaining turbines) carving up a hillside and huge wind turbines do detract from the beauty of a landscape and how remote it feels. I guess micro hydro schemes don't bother me as much, at least ones I've seen have seemed fairly low impact. Spruce plantations aren't great either, although I was under the impression that there is a move towards more diversified plantations now with more native species too, and elements of 'natural' woodland scattered through them - am sure some numbers are out there but couldn't immediately find on Google so not sure.
Once it's gone, it's gone for good (or at least several decades until the end of the turbines' life). I think it would be massive loss if wild places aren't protected.
I think the vast majority of people support introduction of more renewable electricity generation, but what that looks like in practice is of course going to cause disagreement. I'm very much in favour of renewable and nuclear power over fossil fuels, but I'd love to see more protection for places that feel 'wild', not less. Of course it's subjective, but imo offshore wind turbines are much less intrusive than onshore ones, and in general I'd support onshore wind farms in areas near existing population centres and major infrastructure, as they don't really cause any net loss to a place feeling 'wild' because nowhere within miles of a town feels 'wild' anyway.
And I don't see how it could possibly be argued that that position supports ecological degradation - rewilding can go hand in hand with keeping places relatively free of the intrusion of highly noticeable modern infrastructure.
People look back on 'modernisation' of towns (demolishing beautiful and historic areas to replace them with ugly concrete cubes (and I say that as someone that appreciates brutalist architecture)) the 1960s as an architectural and historic tragedy. Just because there was a need for more housing and urban infrastructure didn't mean it should have been done in such a destructive way. I hope we don't treat the need for renewable energy (or simply the desire for money in the case of shooting estates and so on) in the same way and und up causing irreversible damage to wild places.
Only issue is the waste, how do you manage highly radioactive waste with a half life of 250,000 years? Wind farms, hydro impact visually but do not leave a toxic inheritance for thousands of generations to come.
A geological disposal facility, the search for the best location is underway but it won't be available for several decades. Modern nuclear reactors produce small volumes of waste and are designed to be easier to decommission. The UK has already produced most of the nuclear waste it will ever create.
On the wilderness aspect, the GDF will be mainly underground and have an access point on the surface with a relatively small footprint which could be situated away from wilderness areas.
> The matter of the fact is, if we want to reach Net Zero (which we have to and fast), we need to more than double our onshore wind capacity whilst also installing 150GW of offshore wind (we currently have 10GW) and building more pumped storage capability.
Only if you define 'we' as the UK. If you define the UK as Scotland we are already pretty much covering our electricity demand with renewables. Of course we'll need more to electrify transport and gradually phase out gas but we don't need to cover everything with turbines to supply England unless the money makes it financially compelling for us i.e. Scotland.
Also we don't need to keep the existing financial arrangements with estate owners and companies with all their senior staff outside Scotland getting all the financial benefit and the grid pay in tariffs decided by c*nts in London. It needs to be restructured: everybody in Scotland puts up with the sh*tty weather and everybody should get a financial benefit from the energy extracted from it.
Unfortunately the correct geology’s are not been targeted; rather than choosing the correct place the approach was to find communities that would accept facilities. Given the targeted area is Cumbria, it will be visible from the Lakes. The footprint of the facilities will not be small. Timeframes will stretched, I first worked on Disposal facilities thirty years ago, to be honest we are no further forward. We are attempting to build something that has a design life greater than the interglacial period.
Why does the future deserve our waste?
Having worked on the design of onshore wind, hydro, and offshore wind I am afraid I am much more cynical. I see unscrupulous developers and power companies taking the government for a ride building a power infrastructure that is completely dysfunctional. How is endless onshore wind going to solve anything? More of the SNP's 'equivalent' 100% renewable nonsense whilst importing vast amount of gas generated power. Until there is joined up thinking a select group of people and companies will continue to get rich and wild land will be lost, with little real benefit.
Even small scale run of river schemes, often poorly designed and constructed, serve nothing but to make land owners cash. Useless in the winter and useless during warm weather.
We need nuclear power, but should have started 15 years ago.
Well yes, however your argument misses a major point, which is that a significant number of renewable projects in the Highlands are motivated primarily by the opportuntriy to make money, what percentage I couldn't guess, a minority, but nonetheless significant - as in quite obvious. I'm not posting this carelessly, I know my stuff.
All private enterprise is motivated by money, I'm not sure why you'd think that that wouldn't apply to renewables as much as it does to nuclear or coal mining? For better or worse the UK has a free market economy and the government of the day tries to shape the private sector via tax, incentives and regulations.
Great article, and I have to say that I agree on the tracks, but also more controversially (for someone working as a passionate climate change professional for over a decade) including wrt renewable energy.
Wild land is a very scarce resource and a hugely valuable part of our country's natural capital (valuable not least due to its scarcity) - that value needs to be recognised, including by any serious or self-proclaimed environmental activist.
We need to recognise that it is not a choice between onshore wind and fossil fuel use (a false choice posed by many activists and industry lobbyists), but between onshore wind and offshore wind. In many places that's not possible, but the UK and Scotland in particular has some of the best offshore wind resources and it is daft not to just focus on them.
Onshore wind can, realistically, only make a relatively small dent in UK energy needs, so we could easily lose all our wild lands and still be on the path to well over 2C. Worst of both worlds.
As a result I think sentiments like this are fundamentally misguided: "If the impact of renewable energy infrastructure is primarily visual impact then that's a tiny price to pay for the benefits of weening us off fossil fuels" - I'm sorry but Scottish onshore wind is not going to ween us off fossil fuels, yet will permanently industrialise the landscape. It is a huge price for very small (in the context of UK energy needs) gains. Is not visual impact, aesthetics, landscape character, etc., one of / the main reasons that we (as UKCers and as humans) enjoy getting outside? And why getting into nature is rightly promoted as being brilliant for mental health? Even when you look at cities you can see the areas people want to live in and, surprisingly enough, it's the ones that they think look nicest. Of course there is a balance to be struck but dismissing it out of hand is very silly.
An interesting example is from the energy transmission companies who have invested substantially in sub-sea and underground cables to avoid the visual impact on the landscape from high voltage electricity transmission lines, based in part on valuation of the impact they otherwise have on landscape and cultural heritage value.
Clearly some sort of balance is required but I don't sense that either the developer free for all or the 'no building anywhere' brigades are that up for a compromise.
That said..... IMO a few more low-impact alpine style huts would be amazing in Scotland to help with access, even while cutting down the number of random tracks being ploughed through the wilds.
I am not sure how fair it is of you to describe those charged with overseeing electricity market regulation as "c*nts" tbf. Is that because you're assuming the civil servants involved are English?