In environmental justice, the wind still rides roughshod over the rules

The proposed Viking development, which would have seen 103 wind turbines erected on the central mainland of Shetland, mostly on peatland, has been prevented. For once, it seemed as if democracy and environmental concerns had prevailed over big business in

On 24 September, Lady Clark of Calton, the chair of the Scottish Law Commission, ruled against the proposed Viking development in which 103 wind turbines would have been erected on the central mainland of Shetland, mostly on peatland.

The Scottish government had manhandled the project through the final planning phase, despite massive community opposition and the objections of the RSPB, the John Muir Trust, Shetland Amenity Trust, Sustainable Shetland and Scottish Natural Heritage. Citing a range of concerns, Lady Clark made particular note that she was not satisfied Scottish ministers had complied with their obligations under the Wild Birds Directive 2009, adding: “it appears not to be disputed by anyone that whimbrel [a curlewlike member of the snipe family] are a declining species in the UK, with approximately 95 per cent of 290 breeding pairs in Shetland”.

This ruling was, as my mother used to say, “a real tonic” for Scots who, over the past several years, have seen our wildlands and their birds subjected to senseless damage by ill-considered rural projects ranging from the 220km Beauly-Denny super-pylon line to that now-notorious luxury golf resort on a Site of Special Scientific Interest at Menie, imposed by imperial fiat from Holyrood after it was rejected by local decision-makers. For once, it seemed as if democracy and environmental concerns had prevailed over big business interests and the whims of high office.

This hope for environmental justice may be short-lived, however, as the Scottish government quickly announced its decision to appeal Lady Clark’s ruling. It has every right to do so, but one wonders why a government that constantly trumpets its sustainable credentials and commitment to “freedom” would be so intent on ignoring not only a piece of European legislation designed to protect endangered birds, but the outcome of a High Court judicial review in which a very small David rightfully triumphed over a very large Goliath.

Sadly, the threat to Shetland’s wild birds continues, considering the resources that big corporations, backed by government, can bring to bear against a local environmental group such as Sustainable Shetland, whose only funds come from members’ donations.

I suppose there are those in Holyrood who take the view that, to paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “if you’ve seen one whimbrel, you’ve seen ’em all”. One can but hope that others would echo recent comments in the Lords by Viscount Ridley, when he points out that “There is a feeling that wind seems to be exempt from the normal rules. If I were to erect a structure 140 metres high, doubling the height above sea level of the hills alongside the valley of the Stinchar in Ayrshire, for example, there would rightly be an outcry. If I were to kill hundreds of birds of prey every year, there would be outrage. If I were to kill thousands of bats, I would go to jail. How can it be that the wind industry uniquely is allowed to ride roughshod over the environmental rules that protect the rest of us from anyone spoiling the view, killing eagles and pouring concrete into peatland?”

I believe that there are many Scottish politicians, even within the SNP, who worry not only about the land but about their government’s propensity to override any local decision it finds inconvenient. Unless they speak out now, we will see a real blot on Scotland’s environmental copybook.

If Judge Clark’s ruling stands, it sets the stage for a new era of serious environmental protection throughout these islands.

If it does not, a few people will become very rich indeed, but the whimbrel (to use the Gaelic name, Guilbneach-bheag, or “little lamenting one”) may well vanish from Shetland, lamenting to the end, not only for itself, but for us all.

 

Gannets above stormy seas in the Shetland islands, where a wind farm plan has been rejected. Photo: Corbis

This article first appeared in the 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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Why do the words “soup, swoop, loop de loop” come to mind every time I lift a spoon to my lips?

It’s all thanks to Barry and Anita.

A while ago I was lending a friend the keys to our house. We keep spare keys in a ceramic pot I was given years ago by someone who made it while on an art-school pottery course. “That’s er . . . quite challenging,” the friend said of the pot.

“Is it?” I replied. “I’d stopped noticing how ugly it is.”

“Then it’s a grunty,” she said.

“A what?” I asked.

“A grunty. It’s something you have in your house that’s hideous and useless but you’ve stopped noticing it completely, so it’s effectively invisible.”

I was much taken with this idea and realised that as well as “grunties” there are also “gruntyisms”: things you say or do, though the reason why you say or do them has long since been forgotten. For example, every time we drink soup my wife and I say the same thing, uttered in a strange monotone: we say, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop.” How we came to say “soup, swoop, loop de loop” came about like this.

For a married couple, the years between your mid-thirties and your late forties might be seen as the decade of the bad dinner party. You’re no longer looking for a partner, so the hormonal urge to visit crowded bars has receded, but you are still full of energy so you don’t want to stay in at night, either. Instead, you go to dinner parties attended by other couples you don’t necessarily like that much.

One such couple were called Barry and Anita. Every time we ate at their house Barry would make soup, and when serving it he would invariably say, “There we are: soup, swoop, loop de loop.” After the dinner party, as soon as we were in the minicab going home, me and Linda would start drunkenly talking about what an arse Barry was, saying to each other, in a high-pitched, mocking imitation of his voice: “Please do have some more of this delicious soup, swoop, loop de loop.” Then we’d collapse against each other laughing, convincing the Algerian or Bengali taxi driver once again of the impenetrability and corruption of Western society.

Pretty soon whenever we had soup at home, Linda and I would say to each other, “Soup, swoop, loop de loop,” at first still ridiculing Barry, but eventually we forgot why we were saying it and it became part of the private language every couple develop, employed long after we’d gratefully ceased having soupy dinners with Barry and Anita.

In the early Nineties we had an exchange student staying with us for a year, a Maori girl from the Cook Islands in the southern Pacific. When she returned home she took the expression “soup, swoop, loop de loop” with her and spread it among her extended family, until finally the phrase appeared in an anthropological dissertation: “ ‘Soup swoop, loop de loop.’ Shamanistic Incantations in Rarotongan Food Preparation Rituals” – University of Topeka, 2001. 

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt