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25 July 2014updated 23 Jul 2021 9:13am

John Burnside on nature: the threat to Scotland’s wild north

A new threat looms over northern Scotland as Scottish & Southern Electricity seeks to erect a further 47 wind turbines at Strathy South. This will directly imperil golden eagles, hen harriers and the rare wood sandpiper – estimated to number no more than a few breeding pairs in all of Britain.

By John Burnside

I remember how, back in the 1980s, the Scottish Flow Country became an object of bemused controversy as rich celebrities and businessmen from south of the border acquired great tracts of this vast wetland in the far north in order to plant non-native conifer plantations that attract hefty tax breaks.

The RSPB describes the region as “one of the last remaining areas of wild land in the UK”. That anyone would even consider ploughing up the wilderness was cause for dismay, but the handing out of generous subsidies to ensure its destruction was so objectionable that the scheme was phased out in 1988. For once, it seemed, Abraham Lincoln’s old saw had been proven right: “. . . public sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.” And although immense damage had been done, the Flow Country was given a partial reprieve.

Now, a new threat looms over northern Scotland as Scottish & Southern Electricity seeks to erect a further 47 wind turbines at Strathy South, adding to its holdings in the north. This will directly imperil golden eagles, hen harriers and the rare wood sandpiper – estimated to number no more than a few breeding pairs in all of Britain.

The company has chosen land that was badly degraded by those 1980s “investments” – but its vague promises of a “restoration” programme do not arise from any kind of high-mindedness. It is all part of a nationwide circus of smoke and mirrors. And if we add to this the devastation that our subsidy culture has already wreaked in this part of the country – factoring in the Scottish Executive’s hawkish support for an ill-advised 103-turbine Viking Energy windfarm development on Shetland (previously mentioned in this column) – it is hard to avoid the impression that the Scottish National Party-led government cares less about the environment than it would have us believe.

This should not surprise anyone, however: Holyrood’s very active support in the mid-2000s for the now-infamous Trump golf resort at Menie showed a disregard for the environment that, with each “development” it has since pushed through, has become increasingly apparent – and increasingly worrying. Certainly the publication last month of a new map of Scottish wild land areas offered little encouragement to those who want to see Strathy South and Shetland protected from further encroachment.
Neither the Scottish & Southern nor the Viking site appears on the map – despite expert opinions that if these plans were to go ahead nature would suffer.

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Of course, definitions of “wild land” vary and are ultimately determined by the people in charge. But surely it is clear that enough damage has been done, and that it’s time not to draw cosmetic maps (which, should commercial interests challenge them down the line, will almost certainly be redrawn) but to change our way of living?

With energy generation, the first step is to insist that all developments be appropriate in scale, cost-effective and judiciously located to reduce the impact on soil profiles and wildlife to the absolute minimum. (Really, it sounds like arrant cynicism when developers speak of “restoration programmes” while inserting hundreds of huge concrete stabilising plugs into sensitive peatland, such as that found in much of northern Scotland).

We must change – and the first change is to stop believing the lies. To do the research and follow the money trail. Most of all, to ask what “renewable” means, and whether a development is renewable when it destroys birdlife, soil structure and what remains of the last wilderness in an increasingly ruined land. 

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Next week: Felicity Cloake on food