Ill wind blowing for Scotland’s heritage

Draw a line to protect what is unique and beautiful, says Pete Gordon

Golden eagles are found in the Flow Country. Picture: PA

The Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland is a magnificent area of extensive bog habitats in northern Scotland where, over millennia, plant material has been laid down in the waterlogged conditions to form deep layers of peat and stored carbon.

This area is home to many rare birds and other wildlife: in summer it is alive with the “tew-tew-tew” calls of greenshanks, while divers wail from the many lochans and golden eagles soar overhead.

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It has been designated under European law as a Special Protection Area for its birds and as a Special Area of Conservation for its other wildlife and habitats. Indeed, the Flow Country is so important that it is the only wildlife site in the UK currently being considered for nomination as a Unesco World Heritage Site, an accolade afforded only to the very best of the world’s natural and cultural heritage sites.

The Flows have not always been so highly regarded. During the 1970s and 1980s, large areas were drained and planted with non-native conifers – not because this is a good area for tree growing, but because generous tax allowances made it attractive for investors.

This stopped suddenly when the then chancellor, Nigel Lawson, closed this loophole, partly in response to lobbying by the RSPB.

About this time, the Flow Country’s natural heritage importance was finally officially recognised and it was given protected status to prevent further damage.

Unfortunately, boundaries were tightly drawn to exclude areas already planted, leaving many unprotected tree planted holes in the blanket bog.

In recent years, tree-removal and drain-blocking to repair these valuable habitats has been carried out by several organisations and individuals, notably RSPB Scotland and Forestry Commission Scotland. Government policies and financial incentives are designed encourage similar action by other landowners.

It is a Herculean and expensive task which will take a number of years to complete, but the unprecedented landscape-scale restoration is now well underway, helped by significant funding support from the Scottish Government.

However, a proposal by power company SSE for a 47-turbine wind farm at Strathy South, right in the heart of the Flow Country peatlands and on a forestry site already identified for restoration back to bog, is a major concern for all those who care about this special place.

There is no longer any doubt that our climate is changing due to human activity, and our wildlife is already feeling the effects of it. We need renewables to help tackle this problem, and onshore wind is one of the most developed technologies out there to help us do this.

However, renewable energy cannot come at any cost to our wildlife. RSPB Scotland has been involved with every major windfarm proposal in Scotland and our experience tells us that windfarms can be very harmful to birds but most can be located in places where they will not harm important wildlife.

There seems little doubt that the very rich birdlife at Strathy South would be seriously harmed if a wind farm were to be built here, both through loss of habitat and through collisions with turbines.

Having started to rectify, at significant expense, our previous mistake of trying to plant conifers on the Flows, we must take great care not to repeat the mistake with wind energy.

To do so would not only harm the Flow Country, it could also harm the environmental credentials of the wind industry in Scotland.

• Pete Gordon is RSPB conservation planner – North Scotland