FIRST it was Stronelairg, now it’s Altnaharra. Two different wind farm approvals, but each a disgrace.
The Scottish Government’s decision to breach its own wild land map and grant approval for a 22-turbine Creag Riabhach wind farm on the Altnaharra estate in Sutherland has caused dismay in many quarters.
The Borders are already lost in an ocean of white windmills, but now it would appear there are no boundaries, no exceptions, from the threat.
The Creag Riabhach decision contradicts previous rulings to reject applications on similar grounds at Allt Duine, Glenmore, Carn Gorm, Sallachy and Glencassley.
The John Muir Trust is furious with the decision. Alarm bells are ringing with walkers and outdoor groups all over the country.
There’s a feeling that a line in the sand has been crossed. The much-vaunted 2014 wild land map has been violated. Defences elsewhere suddenly look fragile, politicians’ promises more hollow than ever.
But look it from a different perspective. The turbines at Creag Riabhach will power 36,000 homes and pump more than £9 million into the community. The scheme has widespread support from the locals, their MP and MSP, and Highland Council raised no objections. It will provide much-needed employment and business in an area where there has been dearth of opportunities for so long.
It’s easy to stand afar and preach to others what is good for them. Aesthetic values are all very well, but they don’t heat the house and they don’t put food on the table.
I prefer my mountain landscapes free from windmills and other man-made eyesores. But I’m looking at them through the selfish eyes of the visitor, I don’t have to live there. I realise there have to be changes to move forward.
Just this week, farmers’ leaders were discussing the future of the industry after Brexit. They see the loss of subsidies as a major threat, especially to many small Scottish hill farms.
Some environmentalists see this change as an opportunity to introduce better farming practices, a pastoral deep cleaning that will help plants, birds and insects thrive. You can see pros for both sides of the argument but it’s harder to see where the two can meet. As one farming representative put it: “We need animals on the hill before butterflies.”
These confrontations are happening all over the world, and they are growing in regularity. The recent court decision in Oregon is a case in point. Putting aside the actions of a few right-wing gun nuts, the case boiled down to the freedom of local ranchers being able to work the land as they see as their right against federal rules and regulations being dictated from 3000 miles away.
The problem here is that while most agree a sensible energy policy is needed, the current system seems to be all over the place. There’s no consistency, no coherent plan, just an indecent rush to try and meet targets for green energy which tramples every other consideration underfoot.
The massive Stronelairg scheme near Fort Augustus is a prime example. The Scottish Government’s approval for this 67-turbine wind farm was ruled ‘defective’ and subsequently overturned on appeal, but that decision has now been set aside despite claims that the SSE project would ‘destroy the character’ of the land.
Again the argument is the creation of jobs and economic benefit to the region but the overall perception is still that big money talks, and when it comes to the crunch it talks louder than anyone else.
There’s a great moral swell of support for a fracking ban, but if companies start coming round and offering big-money sweeteners, don’t be surprised if the ground suddenly starts opening up beneath you.
The government is walking a tightrope, under pressure to deliver cleaner energy and at the same time grow the economy, and it won’t please everybody.
The Altnaharra decision is just the latest decision to raise the hackles of many, and, along with the recent national parks controversies, this anger may be taken out at the ballot box.
The problem is not going to go away and we may have to accept more pain in certain quarters. We just have to get the balance right.