THE developers of a proposed 47-turbine wind farm near Strathy in Sutherland could be forced to reduce that number to only four.
This forecast has come from RSPB Scotland, as Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) this week confirmed it was continuing its opposition to the scheme in a bid to safeguard many of Britain’s rarest birds in the area.
Its experts say golden eagles, hen harriers, red-throated divers and greenshank are only some of the most iconic species which would be affected if the Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) plans for a Strathy South wind farm go ahead.
The SNH move has come amid continuing concern over the area’s wildlife and blanket bog wetlands.
And it is asking, as an immediate measure to remove any risk to black-throated diver and wood sandpiper in the area, that seven turbines be removed from the masterplan.
But, says SNH, more information is required on the scheme and the removal of a larger number of turbines may be required in order to make the proposals acceptable.
These are the latest moves by SNH, which has been involved in the proposals for the past six years.
And they have been welcomed by RSPB Scotland which has already lodged objections with the Scottish government against the wind farm plan.
In estimating a huge reduction in acceptable turbine numbers, Aedan Smith, head of planning for RSPB Scotland, said: "This objection from SNH really highlights just how sensitive this site is to wind farm development.
"In its comprehensive response, SNH points out that, without major changes and reductions in scale, this proposal could cause unacceptable harm to no less than seven of Scotland’s most threatened bird species, including golden eagle, hen harrier and greenshank.
"Hopefully, SSE will now acknowledge this and abandon these proposals for this very sensitive and special place, right in the very heart of the internationally acclaimed Flow Country."
Dave Mackay, SNH’s area operations manager, said: "Renewable energy can help tackle the effects of climate change. Our role is to provide information and advice to help decision makers balance the needs of the industry with those of nature and landscape, and get the right developments in the right places.
"We have given advice to the Scottish government on this case since 2007.
"In light of the potential negative impacts on both habitats and species of international importance, we are maintaining our objection.
"In the meantime, we are continuing to talk with the developer about issues where we need further information before we can fully assess this proposal."
In its objection, SNH also expressed concern the proposal could harm the rare blanket bog habitat of the Flows, designated under European and Scots law as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC).
An SSE spokesman said: "We appreciate all constructive feedback from key stakeholders on the Strathy South project and welcome the interim advice set out by SNH, including their commitment to ongoing dialogue with our project team to resolve outstanding issues.
"A vast amount of productive consultation work has already been undertaken and SSE is confident our expert team can provide SNH with the relevant responses and assurances they seek.
"Strathy South is an exciting project for the north of Scotland which can play a vital role in restoring a very large area of degraded peatland and offer a wide range of additional environmental and local economic benefits.
"We propose the removal of over 1,000 hectares of inappropriate plantation forestry which is the main threat to the integrity of the surrounding peatland.
"By contrast, the wind farm will have an impact on less than 100 hectares, which will lead to substantial environmental gain overall".
Meanwhile, the opposition being put up against the project was welcomed by Stuart Young, chairman of the Caithness Wind Farm Information Forum, run by people concerned about the proliferation of wind farms in Caithness and Sutherland.
He said: "We would welcome any move which stems the enormous scale of wind farm development blighting the north of Scotland.
"However, the Scottish government already has a record of pushing aside objections by SNH against such developments and I would certainly not be surprised if something like that happens in this case."
The original 77-turbine scheme was submitted to the Scottish government in 2007, However, this has since been revised and an addendum recently submitted for the 47-turbine scheme.
A nearby 33-turbine Strathy North wind farm, which has already been granted planning approval, is currently under construction.