HIGHLAND councillors have backed a controversial windfarm in the hills above Loch Ness.
SSE Renewables has lodged plans to develop a site near its Glendoe hydro electric scheme next to Fort Augustus.
Councillors have voted 11-3 in favour of the Stronelairg project following a site visit.
They followed the recommendations of officials to have the development in the Monadhliath mountain range reduced from 83 turbines to 67.
Helen McDade, head of policy at the John Muir Trust, said: “We are disappointed that the majority of councillors chose to ignore expert opinion from bodies which include Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the Cairngorms National Park, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland and the John Muir Trust.
“But despite this setback, the fight to save the Monadhliath Mountains will continue.
“Reports this week have suggested that the Scottish Government are open to wild land protection, but once we industrialise any area of wild land, it is gone forever.
“If this proposal goes ahead, one of Scotland’s core areas of wild land will disappear under a forest of steel turbines the height of the Forth Bridge, spread across an area of peatland the size of a small city.
“Given that SNH – the official agency overseeing Scotland’s landscape and ecology – maintains a substantive objection to the proposal, it would be normal practice for the Scottish Government to call a public inquiry to ensure that full complexity of the Stronelairg development is fully explored.
“It is vital that there is, for example, an in-depth assessment of the permanent damage to the ecology of the area that would be wreaked by excavating up to a million tonnes of rock from sensitive peatlands to build the infrastructure of the site, which will include concrete foundations and 40 miles of access roads.”
She added: “The Monadhliath Mountains are a national asset of cultural and geographical significance for the whole of Scotland. We would strongly urge the Scottish Government to heed the views of those members of its own party on the council who voted to object to this development.”
SSE Renewables, the renewable energy development division of SSE, has welcomed the decision.
Colin Nicol, director of onshore renewables, said: “I am pleased that the committee has followed the recommendation made in the planners report.
“Should consent be received for Stronelairg from Scottish Ministers, significant contracts could be secured by Highland companies and local employment opportunities will be created.
“This contribution to the local economy cannot be under-valued and we are pleased to be investing in an area where we already have a strong connection.
“In the sensitive design of the wind farm, we’ve taken great care to minimise the impact on both the community and the main tourist routes and attractions of the Great Glen, including Loch Ness.
“I’m pleased that we’ve been able to demonstrate this to the Highland Council and show that we are a responsible developer with a clear and long-standing commitment to the region.
“We will continue to work closely with the local community as the project progresses to maximise benefits for the area.”