Tilting at windmills in the Monadhliath

A wind farm in the Monadhliath Mountains that was approved by the Scottish Government in January this year has met continued opposition from local campaigners and environmental organisations, fuelling the ongoing debate between conservation and commercialisation.

The Dunmaglass development planned by multinational power company RES will see the construction of 33 turbines each approximately 120m high, in a prominent hill top location clearly visible from iconic mountains including Creag Meagaidh, Braeriach and the Glen Affric peaks. With an installed capacity of about 82.5MW the wind farm is designed to meet the average annual energy demand of over 40,000 homes, making this a national scale project with a significant contribution to Scotland's renewable capacity. Don't we need more of this kind of thing?

Sgoran Dubh Mor and distant Monadhliath from Braeriach , 134 kb
Sgoran Dubh Mor and distant Monadhliath from Braeriach

Not according to landscape campaigners. Following on the heels of this hotly disputed planning approval a petition calling for better protection of wild land will come before the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions Committee on Tuesday 22 February, organised by conservation society the John Muir Trust.

To emphasise the urgency of their cause the JMT point to new figures released by Scottish Natural Heritage, the government funded body that looks after nature and landscape. These show that the area 'without visual influence of built development', one of SNH's key indicators of the state of the Scottish environment, shrank by an area equivalent to 14 times the size of Glasgow between January 2008 and December 2009, a fall from 31% to 28% of Scotland. Previous SNH figures showed the area without visual influence of built development had declined from 41 per cent to 31 per cent between 2002 and 2008.

According to Helen McDade, head of policy for the John Muir Trust 'This is a deeply worrying figure, which will clearly continue to decline if more large developments are approved within wild land areas. While many factors are involved, the statistics show that wind developments are responsible for most of this dramatic loss, intruding on areas where little human influence has been felt in the past.'

For wild land campaigners Dunmaglass is very much a case in point, the combination of its size and the sensitivity of its setting making it particularly unwelcome. Opponents point out that its elevated position central to several mountain ranges will ensure that the development's visual impact extends across a wide radius, affecting the 'wild' quality of even fairly distant summits - places from which large scale built development has never been visible before. The turbines will of course be most dominant in the immediate vicinity of the Monadhliath Mountains themselves.

Monadhliath Ain't Rubbish - Geal Charn, 119 kb
Monadhliath Ain't Rubbish - Geal Charn
© Ands, Dec 2003

'It definitely is not an area where no-one goes and that no-one cares about' says Hebe Carus, Access and Conservation Officer for the Mountaineering Council of Scotland .

'The Highland Council's own planning strategy the Highland Renewable Energy Strategy categorises the site as an area with a "presumption against development for national and major scale projects." The Environmental Statement on which the decision was made was seriously and obviously flawed. The Monadhliath is one of the very few areas of continuous uplands outside the Cairngorms National Park with great wildness quality, and yet the report claimed that the area has "low sensitivity to large wind turbines." The supposedly objective report did not even consider the cumulative effects with other proposed and consented wind farms such as the now consented 20 turbine wind farm located on the Corriegarth Estate adjacent. In fact there are 44 Munros and Corbetts within the 40km radius and of these four Munros and three Corbetts are within approximately 20km and the closest is Carn na Saobhaidhe at only 4.5 km distance; this was not even included in the [report's] significant viewpoints [though] 25-33 turbines [will be] visible from there.'

Campaigner, journalist and broadcaster Cameron McNeish is similarly disappointed.

'Estates that neighbour Dunmaglass opposed this scheme, along with thousands of hillwalkers and ornithologists. The development is sickening in its scale and insensitivity. The turbines will be seen as “pale, moving man-made vertical elements in a landscape with few obvious influences of man.” Those are words from the RES Environmental Impact Statement.'

Braes of Doune wind farm , 182 kb
Braes of Doune wind farm

Aside from landscape aesthetics opponents have raised serious concerns about the potential effects on the hydrology and ecology of the site itself, an area of high peat moorland. This is a habitat prioritised at the European level for its fragility and rarity, and the most significant natural carbon store in Britain. At Dunmaglass approximately 32km of access tracks will be built or upgraded, and 12km of overhead power lines installed; the foundation for each turbine will require between 250-300m3 of concrete reinforced by between 22-28 tonnes of steel bar, in a tapered octagonal block of approximately 13-16m diameter, dug into the ground.

“The scheme will result in unacceptable damage to a large area of relatively unspoilt upland peat land and significant disturbance to rare and protected species. In particular the anticipated death toll of up to eleven golden eagles is considered wholly unacceptable' says Rory Syme of the John Muir Trust.

'The RES Environmental Impact Statement casually proclaims that up to 11 golden eagles could die. It doesn't say how many red kite, ospreys, buzzards, merlin, raven, grouse or geese might [also] die.' McNeish points out.

However the developers sound a different note.

'RES has been working closely with Scottish Natural Heritage, the RSPB and Dunmaglass Estate to develop a Nature Conservation Management Plan and Regional Eagle Conservation Management Plan, ensuring benefits are realised not only at the site but also throughout the region' explains company spokeswoman Rachel Anderson.

'The plans will seek to enhance the blanket bog and key bird species of golden plover, dunlin, and golden eagle. This will be achieved through measures including the management of heather moorland, improving wetter habitats for chick rearing and providing predator control for ground nesting birds. The measures implemented for golden eagle will be through making sure the birds are not attracted to the site by removing any carcasses and enhancing an area away from the site.'

The wind farm is expected to have an operational life of 25 years. So what happens then?

'At the end of this period a decision would be made as to whether to refurbish, remove or replace the turbines.' Says Rachel Anderson

'Refurbishment or replacement would require a new planning application to be made. If the site was to be decommissioned, all turbine components, tracks, substation and associated buildings would be removed. Current best practice is not to remove the concrete foundations, as this would create more land damage than leaving them in situ. The exposed concrete plinth is removed, the area is replanted and returned to its previous state. Some of the access tracks could be left to provide benefit to the land owner and recreational users of the site, or they could be covered over and returned to their original state. The power lines to the wind farm are not under the jurisdiction of RES and it would be up to the network operator as to what happens at the end of the wind farm's operational life. A bond will be agreed with Highland Council and put in place for the cost of decommissioning, should it be required, at the end of 25 years.'

The contribution that Dunmaglass will make towards meeting Scotland's ambitious renewable energy target is significant, but at a local level its costs and benefits are unclear. Opponents fear the possible negative effect on visitor numbers in an area in which tourism is a key sector and landscape quality a major draw. Following the construction phase the development would provide only a handful of long term jobs - two service engineers and one to three gamekeepers by RES's own calculation. That's fairly typical of wind farms more generally.

For Rory Syme of the John Muir Trust the impact goes beyond economics.

'These mountains are entirely unique from other areas of wild land in the UK. The Dunmaglass development could set a precedent for more wind farms to be consented in areas of wild land. Our Vision is that wild land is protected and the wild places are valued by and for everyone. This decision is yet another demonstration of the urgent need for greater protection of wild land.'

Hebe Carus of the MCofS sounds a similar note

'Depressingly these types of location will continue to be pushed through despite a multitude of objections and biased environmental impact assessments while the Scottish Government renewables policy stands as it is.'

The John Muir Trust's petition for better protection of wild land will come before the Scottish Parliament's Public Petitions Committee tomorrow, carrying just over 3,500 signatures.

In a written response to the petition Scottish Natural Heritage echo its note of alarm, concluding by saying 'There is a history, in the field of environmental protection, of acting decisively only when the resources in question are under extreme threat. Given the distinctiveness and rarity of Scotland's wild land resource – in a western European, not purely a UK, context – we must surely avoid this trap and act before it is too late.'

In contrast Rachel Anderson of RES is more sanguine.

'Wind turbines are certainly visible but whether or not they have a negative effect on the landscape is, to a large extent, a personal view.'

The argument is unlikely to be resolved soon, but for Scotland's wild land campaigners time may be running out.

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