COUNCILLORS are to carry out a site visit high up in the Monadhliath Mountains before voting on a plans for a controversial windfarm above Loch Ness – despite fears voiced over inaccessibility.
Energy giant SSE Renewables originally sought to construct 144 turbines, some reaching 443ft high, at Stronelairg on the Garrogie Estate near Fort Augustus.
They reduced their application to 83, and has agreed to further cut the number to 67 following consultation with planning officials, who had recommended councillors raise no objection to the plans.
However, Highland Council’s South Planning Applications Committee has narrowly voted to carry out a site visit prior to discussing the contentious proposal.
Some members joked they may need to hire a helicopter or hiking boots – or even a sled dog team – to be able to fully assess the land affected.
The plans have outraged anti-windfarm campaigners who claimed it would devastate huge parts of wild land in the area of the famous Monadhliath Mountains.
The Stronelairg proposal would require around 40 of new access tracks, with existing tracks also needing upgraded.
It would also see underground power cables running between the turbines, transformers and control building. There are varying levels of peat across much of the site, about 80% of which is 1.4metres orless in depth.
Planning officials recommended against a site visit, saying much of the application could only be viewed from the tops of Munro and Corbett mountains.
They said a series of photographs taken from strategic locations, and handed to councillors, provided a sufficient idea of the impact of the windfarm.
Despite warnings that snow drifts would make many locations inaccessible, Councillor Donnie Kerr moved a motion for a site visit.
He said: “The whole argument is about wild land, and that can not be taken from a photograph. It is about something you feel and sense.
“In these modern days you have four-wheel drive vehicles and argocats, so accessibility is not the factor is used to be.
“We can get our hiking boots on, or a friend of mine has a dog sled team. I could make inquiries.”
Councillor Dave Fallows added: “What is important to me is to experience the place itself.”
Colleague Bill Lobban said: “It is essential we have some sort of appreciation of what this area is like. To say we can’t get there until June because of snow is nonsense.”
Supporters of the site visit said there was already a road in many parts of the proposed area being used for the Glendoe Hydro Scheme which could be used.
They pinpointed three viewing areas, the Glendoe Dam and the village of Fort Augustus as relevent locations to visit.
Councillors Thomas Prag and Margaret Davidson argued they could properly assess the application by using photographs taken by the officials.
However, the site visit went through on a 9-7 vote. A date has still to be decided on.
The decision was welcomed by conservation charity The John Muir Trust, particularly after councillors last week voted to object to proposals for wind farms on wild land at Dalnessie and Glenmorie after site visits to the proposed developments.
Policy officer Fraser Wallace said: “Most of Scotland’s wild land is in the Highlands, so it is encouraging that Highland councillors are increasingly questioning the wisdom of constructing industrial-scale wind developments on rugged landscapes.
“By visiting the Stronelairg site, councillors will have a chance to visualise the sheer scale of the damage that would be wreaked on this vast area of wild land one and half times the size of the city of Inverness.
“They will also be better placed to assess the dangers of excavating up to a million tonnes of rock from the sensitive peatlands in and around Stronelairg to build the infrastructure of the site, which will include concrete foundations and 40 miles of access roads.
“We are confident that when they have all the available information to hand, Highland Council will join with expert bodies such as Scottish Natural Heritage, the Cairngorms National Park, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, and the John Muir Trust in rejecting this proposal.”
Pat Wells of Stop Highland Windfarms Campaign said: “Whilst appreciating the logisitical challenge of a site visit – in itself indicative of the remoteness of the location – we submit that it is impossible to fully appreciate the wildness of this country and the dreadful impact a wind factory would have, simply by looking at developer’s visualisations, infamous for being produced in such a way as to make the development appear relatively innocuous.
“Construction of the windfarm would involve many miles of wide tracks gouged through deep peat and excavation of thousands of tonnes of peat to allow more than 600 tonnes of polluting concrete to be poured into each turbine base.”
Ron Payne, director of landscape and access for the McoS, said: “Our concern is that the windfarm will destroy the perception of wilderness.”
An SSE spokesman said: The claims from some about the impact on perceived ‘wild land’ are misleading and fundamentally inaccurate.
“Rather than wilderness, the proposed wind farm is built around existing hydro infrastructure, including a one km-long dam, and lies within a managed sporting estate containing over 20km of roads and tracks.
“We are pleased that the planning report recommends no objection, recognising the overall impact of this carefully-designed project which would bring significant benefit to local communities, businesses and the environment.
“Through a positive consultation process we have reduced the scale of this project from an initial 144 turbines, down to 67, and the entire development area sits within a natural bowl in the landscape, well hidden from the main tourist routes and not visible from Loch Ness.”