Published 22nd May 2020, 17:53

    IT'S just over a year since the controversial Glen Etive hydro schemes were given the green light, but I'm sure it will come as no surprise to learn that the goalposts are already being shifted.

    The proposals for seven separate schemes, one for each of the main tributaries on the River Etive, were submitted nearly two years ago and whipped up a storm of protest and objections from mountaineers, kayakers and other outdoors groups.

    The initial blueprint was a flawed piece of work, failing to address many of the concerns surrounding the nature of the land and, in at least one case, omitting vital information. Promises were made, concessions given, but it seemed no one had learned from past experience. Soon after the start of preparatory work, the developers submitted revised proposals. It's a story as old as the hills.

    Two separate pieces of work finally got underway at the start of this year – one to upgrade the power-line running down the glen, the other to upgrade the road. The original agreement with Highland Council was that trucks carrying raw materials that had to access the glen from the A82 were restricted to 18 tonnes weight to prevent damage to the road surface.

    It stipulated that upgrading was required, with passing places being improved and new ones created to alleviate congestion and reduce damage to the verges, a resolution welcomed by the local community. It had also been agreed that any heavy machinery would be brought up Loch Etive by boat rather than by road, then transported through forestry tracks to the various sites.

    That was then, this is now. The developers, London-based Dickins Hydro, are proposing a change that would see all construction traffic for the Allt Chaorainn scheme – the tributary nearest to the A82 – coming in by road from the A82. They also want to temporarily upgrade some bridges to be able to carry 40 tonne trucks down the glen rather than the agreed 18 tonne ones.

    You don't have to be a cynic to wonder why this was not addressed at the original planning meetings. The developer certainly had enough time to consider alternatives before then.

    Now, with work underway, councillors are likely to be stuck between a rock and a hard place (somewhat ironically when you consider that the rock and the hard place will likely be bulldozed anyway). The coronavirus crisis has heightened fears for local economies and that will weigh heavily on the minds of those who have to make difficult decisions, even though the promised jobs benefit for these projects is always exaggerated.

    In cases like this, the developer holds all the aces. Promise a few temporary jobs and a share-out of pounds for the few and pennies for the many and it's job done. The country is littered with wind farms and hydro schemes where the promised restoration work is left undone on a scarred landscape. The lack of inspections and penalties imposed is a national disgrace.

    Still, there are hopeful signs that there may be a reversal to the constant onslaught on our wild land with one report recently suggesting that owning large estates for the purpose of shooting is becoming less fashionable.

    The Danish billionaire Anders Povlsen is now Scotland's largest landowner with 200,000 acres across 11 estates, and his mission statement of conservation, restoration and rehabilitation is a welcome upgrade from the shoot-anything-that-moves approach. No matter where you stand on land ownership, there's no denying the regeneration work being carried out in Glen Feshie is impressive.

    But for every upside there's a downside, and his proposals to create a tourist resort – including a restaurant, bakehouse, stonecutters, shop, hotel and microbrewery – at Tongue in Sutherland haven't gone down well with the local business community who feel it could kill off their livelihoods.

    Another major factor for the switch in estate investment could be the likelihood of mandatory licensing of shooting estates by the Scottish Government that could mean heavy fines or prosecution for grouse moor owners who fail to protect birds of prey and other species.

    It's long overdue – the wildlife charity RSPB says that in the six weeks of lockdown it has seen a surge in the number of reports of birds of prey being illegally killed in England and Wales. These include hen harriers, peregrine falcons, red kites, goshawks, buzzards and a barn owl.

    The crimes were described as 'orchestrated' with the vast majority having connections with shooting estates or land managed for shooting. A spokesman said that people who wanted to kill birds of prey had been emboldened by the absence of walkers and hikers, with the surge correlating exactly with the date the lockdown was imposed.

    The pandemic has brought much of the follies of our modern lifestyle and the need for change into sharp focus. Let's hope it's not too little, too late, for our wonderful landscape and wildlife.