Northern vision

Published: 24th October 2017

Despite stronger wild land protection, Mel Nicoll warns there is still work to do in some parts of the Scottish Highlands

Flow Country

Travel to Inverness, go north, further – and keep going. When you reach Scotland’s far north coast at Thurso you are 675 miles north of London, and on roughly the same latitude as Oslo, St Petersburg and Juneau in Alaska. To picture it better, draw a line roughly from Loch Broom, near Ullapool, to the Dornoch Firth on the eastern coast.

This is a land of dazzling contrasts. Towering, distinctive mountains gaze over rolling peatlands, picuresque glens and ragged coastlines. The roll-call of hills in this spectacular region includes Ben Klibreck, Ben More Assynt, Ben Hope, Ben Loyal, Ben Hee, Foinaven, Arkle, Morven and Scaraben, whose evocative and poetic names are familiar to hillwalkers and other lovers of wild places.

Less obviously – but fulfilling a vital ecological function as carbon stores and home for rare wildlife – are the vast peatlands of the Flow Country, whose 200,000 hectares spread across the far north east corner of the Scottish mainland have been nominated for potential inclusion as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as the largest area of blanket bog in the world.

Here, you are in wild land – officially. The northern counties of Caithness, Sutherland and Ross-shire include no fewer than 10 of Scotland’s 42 Wild Land Areas, mapped in 2014 by the Scottish Government’s nature and landscape adviser, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).

Yet this area of picture-postcard beauty is also a magnet for energy companies seeking to develop large-scale wind farms. Recently, the Scottish Government gave the go-ahead for a major development at Creag Riabhach, near Altnaharra, which will consist of 22-turbines up to 125m tall, including five within Wild Land Area 37. Other major wind farms at various stages in the planning system include Caplich, Strathy South and Limekiln.

This June, the SNH Wild Land Areas map will be three years’ old. It has played a vital role in raising awareness of wild land and helping guide planning applications. In the first two years after its publication, seven wind farms were refused consent for reasons which included adverse impacts on wild land.

The Creag Riabhach wind farm decision however, was a setback, flatly contradicting the advice of SNH, whose analysis had set out in no uncertain terms the significant impact this would have on wild land.

More positively, in January 2017 SNH published its Descriptions of Wild Land Areas – a document that provides detailed information about each of the 42 Wild Land Areas, painting a picture of their distinctive landscapes, ecology, geology, archaeology and current human activity.

Crucially, the descriptions set out the extent to which these landscapes are currently impacted by development. We believe that this document should be integral to the assessments developers have to make when they submit their applications, and to the ultimate planning decisions of local authorities and the Scottish Government.

The descriptions, however, are also a powerful reminder of this amazing asset, and hopefully will be used by VisitScotland and other agencies to encourage more people to explore these remarkable wild places, with knock-on economic benefits for local communities in the Highlands.

It’s understandable that in these beautiful but economically fragile areas, the community benefit funds offered by wind farm developers can exert a strong pull, as can the prospect of a short-term boom for hoteliers, publicans and shopkeepers during the construction phase.

But if we allow the industrialisation of these dramatic, wild landscapes that attract visitors from all over world there will be long term consequences.

We would also encourage local communities, councils and the Scottish Government to explore the potential economic benefits of repairing and restoring damaged ecosystems in our uplands and peatlands.

For example, an economic impact study carried out for the Peatlands Partnership ‘Flows to the Future’ project, which is working to restore areas of blanket bog damaged by commercial forestry planting, outlines the potential of this work for employment and tourism; this includes 26 full time equivalent (FTE) jobs until 2019, then 11 FTEs in future years.

The phenomenal success of the North Coast 500 circular route – a project launched just two years ago in an effort to achieve sustainable economic growth in the north of Scotland – provides a further glimpse of the potential for a new future for the north. It has already achieved impressive results, with reports of increased visitor numbers driving the expansion of local businesses. Vital to its success is what VisitScotland has described as “the unspoilt, dramatic scenery in the far north of Scotland”.

In consenting the Creag Riabhach wind farm, Ministers did recognise the impact the development would have on wild land. By their own admission, they wrestled with the challenge of balancing the benefits and impacts of the development as a whole, in the context of “different and competing policies”. These rightly include the transition to a low carbon economy by encouraging renewable energy, and realising socio-economic benefits for local communities.

But while the extent to which visitors will be put off by wind farms remains a point of contention, there is a growing sense that any short-term financial benefits from industrialising wild landscapes will be come at a heavy cost to the ecology, landscape and local economies within these areas.

Wildlife tourism, for example, is now making a significant and growing contribution to Scotland’s economy, especially in the Highlands and Islands. Its magnificent natural environment now features regularly on prime-time TV, from the Spring, Winter and Autumnwatch programmes presented by Chris Packham and Michaela Strachan to the recent BBC documentary series, Highlands: Scotland’s Wild Heart, narrated by Ewan MacGregor.

A year ago, I wrote l of our hope that decisions would continue to be made in favour of wild land, so we can then turn our focus to the challenge of enhancing and regenerating nature in these areas. But, as the Creag Riabhach decision illustrates, the battle to protect Scotland’s Wild Land Areas is not yet over – and with several other major applications still in the pipeline, we need your continuing support.

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  • This article by the Trust's Campaigns Coordinator Mel Nicoll was first published in the Spring 2017 (62) Journal
  • The John Muir Trust is a membership organisation. Find out more