We must protect Flow Country wetland

BLANKET bog is vital to the environmental future of Scotland and this wind farm test case is one we must win, says Aedán Smith

The unique blanket peat bogs of the Flow Country are threatened by the wind farm proposed for Strathy South

RSPB Scotland is currently involved in a major planning inquiry into a long-running proposals from Scottish & Southern Energy (SSE) for a wind farm at Strathy South in the heart of the Flow Country of Sutherland.

Controversial wind farms are far from unusual but what is significant about Strathy South is the extent to which it represents a test case for how we in Scotland value one of our few globally important environmental assets, our blanket bog peatlands.

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RSPB Scotland, through the hard work and perseverance of our committed staff, is usually able to persuade developers to resolve major concerns before things get to this stage. We put huge efforts into trying to help developers reduce the impacts of wind farms because they are a critical part of tackling climate change, which is of course a major threat to wildlife and people around the world. We therefore fully support the development of wind farms, but not at any cost. They must be sited to avoid our most important wildlife sites.

Unfortunately, in this case SSE has not listened to the concerns RSPB Scotland and others have been raising for more than ten years. The firm continues to push ahead with its plans for this sensitive site, surrounded by high-quality peatland habitat which is also home to many bird species.

As a result, this is the first wind farm inquiry RSPB Scotland have been involved with for a number of years, and it is no surprise that it is also opposed by Scottish Natural Heritage, (SNH – Scotland’s statutory adviser on the natural environment), the Highland Council and a range of other conservation organisations including the John Muir Trust, the Scottish Wildlife Trust, Plantlife and Buglife – all of whom are extremely worried about the harm this project would cause to Scotland’s wildlife.

Although Strathy South is in the centre of a large area of fantastic peatland habitat, the site itself was damaged by commercial conifer forestry planting in the 1980s as a result of a tax break policy that incentivised tree planting. The site is now an “island” of stunted conifers in an otherwise fantastic naturally – almost treeless – unique peatland landscape. Not only did this disastrous 1980s policy damage large parts of the Flow Country peatlands, the areas planted were often too nutrient poor or too wet to support commercially competitive timber crops in any case.

This folly was realised within a few years, resulting in the tax breaks being stopped and the peatlands being given international protection, but by then many areas, including Strathy South, had been planted with trees.

Over the past 20 years, RSPB Scotland and other partners, including SNH and Forestry Commission Scotland, supported by the Scottish Government and the European Union, have been working to remove these past mistakes, removing trees from the peat bogs and repairing the damage caused.

Thousands of hectares of blanket bog have now been restored and many more hectares are earmarked for restoration in the coming years.

There is no doubt that removing the “island” of forestry at Strathy South is one of the highest conservation priorities in the Flow Country. Removing the trees and restoring the blanket bog would not only improve the habitat and wildlife value of the site itself, it would make a disproportionately positive difference to the whole area by creating a fantastic restored peatland landscape on an impressive scale.

At the Strathy South wind farm public inquiry, RSPB Scotland have put forward a number of different means by which tree removal could be funded.

These could include grants and funding from the Scottish Government, from the European Union, or even through money generated from building a small community scale wind farm nearby.

As part of its proposed wind farm, SSE would also remove the trees from the site, so there is no doubt that the trees will be removed, it’s just a matter of how soon and by what means. Unfortunately, SSE’s plans would also involve replacing the trees with wind turbines and other wind farm infrastructure which would further damage the peat and delay restoration by at least the 25-year lifetime of the wind farm. It is likely that some damage from the wind farm would be permanent as, for example, even when the turbines are removed the concrete bases would remain.

The inquiry continues in June and RSPB Scotland will continue putting forward its alternative vision for the restoration of the site. The final decision about whether to grant permission for Strathy South will lie with Scottish ministers. That will be the real test as to whether ministers remain committed to restoring the fantastic peatlands of the Flow Country and rectifying the mistaken tree planting tax policies of past governments.

• Aedán Smith is head of planning and development at RSPB Scotland www.rspb.org.uk/Scotland