BREEDING sites of one of Scotland's most iconic birds of prey are to be given special protection - despite objections from wind farm developers.
A total of six sites across Scotland covering more than 350,000 hectares have been granted special protection status for the golden eagle by the Scottish Government.
Ministers yesterday approved the plans after receiving widespread support in a consultation by Scottish Natural Heritage.
The move will add some 80 additional breeding territories into the current network of eight sites in northern and western Scotland.
Conservationists welcomed the announcement. "I am delighted at the decision by Scottish Ministers to confirm the designation of these sites to protect golden eagles," said Stuart Housden, director of RSPB Scotland. "This is a major step forward for the conservation of Scotland's unofficial national bird - a true icon of our country's magnificent wild places and amongst the most sought-after species by the hundreds of thousands of tourists that come to see our fantastic wildlife annually."
The designation of SPAs requires conservationists, led by the Government, to avoid pollution or deterioration of habitats and ensure there are not any disturbances affecting the birds, in terms of nearby developments or changes to land management.
Susan Davies, north areas director of SNH, said the conservation of golden eagles would help boost wildlife tourism in Scotland which, according to a recent SNH study, generates 1.4 billion a year for the Scottish economy.
"Along with other birds of prey, golden eagles can bring benefits to the local economy through wildlife watching," she said.
"These new sites are a significant contribution to conservation efforts to support birds of prey."
Almost all breeding golden eagles in Britain - where there are 442 pairs - are in Scotland, although poor habitat quality has previously meant that even if an adult pair can survive they will rarely breed successfully.The birds, which prefer the wild countryside habitats of peatlands, uplands and mountains, are also at risk from poisoning and shooting by humans.
The new SPAs will be located at Glen Affric to Strathconon - in the Central Highlands and Ross-shire - the Cairngorms Massif, Foinaven at Durness, Moidart and Ardgour near Fort William, Glen Etive (near Bridge of Orchy) to Glen Fyne near Arrochar, Jura, Scarba and the Garvellachs.
Ridge Wind and Wind Prospect, two developers involved in the Stacain wind farm project near Inverary in Argyll, previously claimed the creation of further Special Protection Areas would kill off the potential for new wind farm developments in large areas of Scotland.
Environment minister Roseanna Cunningham said: "It's fitting that we're taking further steps to protect golden eagles as they are one of Scotland's most iconic species.
"We have a duty to protect our biodiversity but that doesn't mean that we should rule out economic activity in our countryside. I know these designations are often seen as constraints on development but the potential for conflict can be minimised with careful planning."