As the public inquiry into Scottish and Southern Energy’s controversial 39 turbine wind farm at Strathy South re-opens today, a war of words is already developing between developers Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) and objectors the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).
Yesterday morning, SSE issued a statement saying that the development and peatland restoration proposal “guarantees significant net gain for the environment”.
This is the view, they say, of prominent Scottish ornithologists giving evidence at the final sessions of the public local inquiry in Strathy Village Hall.
The Strathy South plan includes extensive restoration and conservation management of degraded peatland on the proposed wind farm site and beyond; equivalent to an area the size of around 6,400 full-sized football pitches.
Last year, the Strathy South application triggered a PLI on the basis of concerns maintained by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) on two bird species – greenshank and red-throated diver; however experts have judged the approach taken by SNH to assess bird impacts in this case as over-precautionary.
Ornithology specialist at environmentalist advisors RPS Group, Martin Scott, said: “The very detailed analysis of the Strathy South site by professional ecologists since 2003 has concluded the approach adopted by SNH is over-precautionary.
“All other bird and habitat issues have been successfully concluded, except in relation to greenshank and red-throated divers. There is no recorded evidence that these birds are susceptible to collisions with wind turbines, and the benefits of commercial forestry removal and peatland restoration proposed by SSE would be positive for habitats, birds and other wildlife.
“Our detailed investigations have concluded that no concerning impacts are likely from the Strathy South project, and that overall it is guaranteed to deliver a significant net gain for the environment.”
The comments come as one of the UK’s leading experts on the impact of wind farms on peatland, Dr Tom Dargie, has confirmed the benefits to be gained from restoring forestry-damaged peat back to bog habitat, including renewed capture of atmospheric carbon.
Dr Dargie said: “RSPB is a valued conservation charity that does much good work through its reserves, research and in environmental education. We are particularly disappointed therefore that on this occasion, key aspects of the project are being misreported, including the carbon payback figures being put into the public domain.
“The true likely carbon payback time as shown by the SSE submissions is around 1-2 years. Research shows that in addition to the likely short carbon payback period for the wind farm itself, the large scale peatland restoration proposed will, over time, capture further substantial amounts of atmospheric carbon.”
Paul Cooley, SSE’s Director of Renewables, said: “Strathy South enjoys strong public support from within the local Strathy and Armadale community. If consented, it would join SSE’s existing Strathy North wind farm in contributing millions of pounds to local projects and initiatives in a very rural part of Highland Scotland through community investment plans – while, in tandem, bringing economic benefits to a range of Highland businesses.”
But this morning, RSPB hit back, saying: “It has been revealed that as few as two turbines, located elsewhere in the wider local area, may be able to generate sufficient income to restore the damaged site.
“Strathy South is in the heart of the Flow Country peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland. The area was damaged by non-native commercial forestry planting in the 1980s.
“SSE had argued that a large wind farm would remove the trees and pay for restoration of the peatland. That plan would mean the installation of 39 turbines of up to 135 metres high, large concrete foundations and over 30,000 metres of track, which would prevent the area from ever being fully restored.
“However, an independent study commissioned by RSPB Scotland, has found that all the funds needed to carry out full restoration of the site could be raised by as few as two commercial scale turbines. These turbines could be located elsewhere in the wider local area, on a much less sensitive site.
“RSPB Scotland has repeatedly stated that Strathy South is not a suitable location for a wind farm and has also countered SSE’s claims by pointing out that the commercial forestry will eventually be removed, regardless of whether or not the wind farm goes ahead. There are also a wide range of alternative funding sources available for peatland restoration and restoration is already being funded and delivered on other sites nearby.
Pete Gordon, RSPB Scotland Conservation Planning Officer, said: “It is now clear that if SSE really cared about the protection and restoration of the Flow Country peatlands they wouldn’t be pushing to build a wind farm on this scale at this unique site.
“Building a 39 turbine wind farm on this sensitive site in order to fund its restoration, when it’s clear that as few as two turbines located elsewhere may be able to deliver the same benefits, is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. One also has to question where all the additional revenue from the remaining 37 turbines SSE is proposing for Strathy South would go.”
SSE retaliated: “We have examined RSPB’s speculative report as part of the Public Local Inquiry process for Strathy South.
“SSE believes it to be substantively inaccurate and misleading, whilst lacking in detail in several key aspects. It also ignores the wide ranging benefits the wind farm would bring to the local economy and local people who are widely supportive of the wind farm proposal.
“RSPB also dismisses the climate change benefits of the project. The peat restoration funding SSE’s Strathy South project offers is unparalleled in the sheer scale of restoration and management proposed within a single project proposal.’’