A 47-turbine windfarm planned for Scotland’s “globally-important” Flow Country – a vast expanse of peatland in the north – has been dubbed “one of the most worrying” applications ever made.
RSPB Scotland has formally lodged an objection to the development, proposed by energy giant SSE, owners of Scottish Hydro. There is also opposition from the Scottish Wildlife Trust, which has over 30,000 members.
The Flow Country is the name given to 1,500 square miles of peatland in Caithness and Sutherland – the largest blanket bog in the world.
They are described as being one of the planet’s rarest habitats, being a home for many bird species – including golden eagle, hen harrier, merlin, black-throated diver, red throated diver, greenshank and golden plover - and also an important carbon store.
The company was given consent for 33 turbines at Strathy North in 2011 and now want to expand on to a new site of a non-native conifer tree plantation. They had originally sought permission in 2007 for 77 turbines, but have now reduced that number by 30.
The conifer forest was one of many planted on the Flows peatlands in the 1970s, a number by celebrities who invested due to tax breaks offered at the time.
These plantations have now been universally acknowledged as a mistake and are the subject of large-scale restoration work supported by many Government agencies and local groups.
In its 30-page long submission, RSPB Scotland criticised this proposal for its impact on breeding birds and its location in a Special Protection Area (SPA).
There is also concern that the development would undermine a vision to restore huge swathes of blanket bog within the Flow Country.
Just last month, the Scottish Government announced £15 million worth of new funding to support restoration of Scotland’s peatlands, such as those in the Flows.
Stuart Housden, director of RSPB Scotland, said: “This is, without doubt, one of the most worrying wind farm applications we have seen in Scotland.
“Not only does it risk harming some of the UK’s rarest species, it would make restoration of this core part of the globally important Flow Country much more difficult.
“The blanket bog and peatland habitat of the Flows is so special and rare that it is protected by law and is currently the subject of a multi-million pound funding bid by the Peatlands Partnership for ambitious restoration and public engagement work.
“The Flow Country is also on the UK Tentative List for inscription as an UNESCO World Heritage Site.”
He added: “Wind farms play a vital part in tackling climate change but damage to our most important places for wildlife must be minimised.
“Over the last few years, SSE have shown that they can be a responsible developer, abandoning or amending some proposals elsewhere in Scotland that would have harmed wildlife – but this proposal sticks out like a sore thumb in their current portfolio.
“That they would consider something like this, in such a vital home for nature is very disappointing. It cannot be allowed to proceed. We hope SSE reconsiders its plans or that Scottish Ministers quickly reject this application.”
The Scottish Wildlife Trust has also raised an objection, saying the plans include proposals to build on very deep peat –over 3.5meters in depth - which has taken more than 3,500 years to develop.
Living landscape policy officer Bruce Wilson, said: “The Scottish Wildlife Trust recognises that onshore windfarms are amongst the most established of renewable technologies and supports their development as part of Scotland’s energy portfolio.
“However, they must avoid sites where there would be unacceptable modification, loss or fragmentation of important species, habitats or ecosystems.
“In this particular case, the Scottish Wildlife Trust believes that the environmental impacts to breeding birds such as hen harriers, golden eagles, greenshanks and merlin – not to mention internationally important bogs - are far too great, but fully supports the removal on non-native conifers in the area to aid with peatland restoration.”
Nicki Small, SSE’s Strathy South Project Manager, said: “SSE recognises the global importance of the peatland habitat in the Flow Country and the importance of preventing further degradation of the carbon rich soils.
“That is why we have made significant changes to the original proposal at Strathy South, taking on board feedback from stakeholders including the RSPB.
“Contrary to the claims of the RSPB, Strathy South will actually help restore over 1000 hectares of degraded peatland while the wind farm will have an impact on less than 100 hectares.
“The project therefore delivers a significant positive environmental gain for the Flow Country as well as offering a wide range of additional environmental and local economic benefits. We have discussed the proposals at length with RSPB, SNH and all stakeholders with a view to achieving the best outcome and we will continue to engage with RSPB in a pragmatic and scientific way should they be interested in doing so.”
The Flow Country covers over 400,000 hectares - 1,500 square miles – and peat has been forming for thousands of years, and can reach an incredible five metres in depth.
The dead remains of bog mosses and other plants are preserved in wet, acidic conditions. Over 400 million tonnes of carbon are stored beneath the surface, protected by a fragile layer of moss that stops it escaping into the atmosphere, which some scientists claim contributes to climate change.