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.