The Angry Corrie 58: Jul-Sep 2003

Weirs and not so wonderful (Shieldaig)

Mike Cawthorne with the latest on the Shieldaig hydro scheme

Amid all the fuss - some would say tedium - of the regional and local elections on 2 May, it was easy to miss a notice tucked away on page 25 of the Scotsman. It came from Dundee-based company Highland Light and Power (HLP) and contained their long-awaited application for a hydro scheme in Shieldaig/Flowerdale, part of the Wester Ross National Scenic Area. The proposed scheme includes the damming of Loch a'Bhealaich, Loch a' Ghobhainn, Loch Gaineamhach and Loch na h'Oidhche, along with two new turbine houses, cross-catchment transfers of water and over 4km of new vehicle track. Weirs at the outflow of each loch will be up to 2.5 metres high and 30 metres long, and will affect 20km of lochshore and their associated river systems. In total, 400 square hectares of land will be incorporated. HLP also submitted an environmental report, as required by law, and a 28pp "non-technical summary", available free on request.

TAC readers won't need reminding that this is HLP's second attempt to squeeze a few megawatts from this area of wilderness. (See, for instance, TAC52, p13.) Their 1995 application resulted in a protracted public inquiry, costing the taxpayer between 500,000 and 1 million pounds, and when it became obvious that they would be on the losing side, HLP withdrew their proposals. The inquiry details, incidentally, have never been published.

David McKenzie, HLP director, assured me in December 2001 that the new application would be formally submitted "early in the new year", so what has HLP been doing in the intervening 15 months? Andrew Johnston, Gairloch resident and ardent opponent of the scheme, has used his website to display various articles and letters published in the local press. These illuminate the claims made by HLP and their publicity machine Shandwick Weber Worldwide, for instance showing that HLP's claim (in a June 2002 Press and Journal article) that 52% of "local residents" support the scheme was based on a telephone poll of only 115 people. Also, the survey was inherently biased, as those contacted were invited to "participate in a survey of economic development in Wester Ross". Only people in the Gairloch area were asked, which excludes other locals in Talladale, Kinlochewe, Torridon, Inveralligin and Lower Diabaig, many of whom live closer to the scheme. Strictly speaking, there are no "locals", the earmarked lochs being a part of a 300km2 region of uninhabited wilderness.

Then came the extraordinary slur by local laird John Mackenzie, long-term supporter and potential beneficiary of the hydro project. In an interview with the West Highland Free Press, Mackenzie claimed that most of those against the proposals were "whingers and girners from other parts of Scotland" who had only visited the area on holiday. Presumably his contempt does not embrace those visiting fishermen and shooters who patronise his own estate. He might do well to remember the findings of the "town and the environment" study which concluded that walkers and climbers contribute 468 million pounds each year to Scottish tourism.

First to respond to HLP's plans was the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, who had spoken vehemently against the scheme during the 1997 inquiry and whose 26/5/03 statement reflected exasperation that a second application was allowed at all. They called for a "massive response to defeat the proposals", and their vice-president John Mackenzie (a different one) said that "Doing anything artificial to this landscape is nothing short of vandalism".

The John Muir Trust's position had been keenly awaited, as some of its 10,500 members feared the leadership was preparing a non-committal response. After scrutiny of the environmental impact assessment report, JMT director Nigel Hawkins strongly opposed any development in "one of the last wild land sanctuaries in Britain". The JMT also pointed out that the maximum 3.55MW was a "minuscule fraction (0.035%) of the UK's renewable energy target".

Most damning of all was the JMT's assessment of what would happen to the 20km of lochshore from May to September, or when water levels were artificially low. "Over time," they said, "following the completion of the weirs, large areas of shoreline will almost certainly become a uniform ribbon of bare rock, gravel and sand." HLP have claimed the effects of this "drawdown" will be "negligible". They and the JMT cannot both be right, which brings me to the environmental impact assessment report and its more palatable cousin, the non-technical summary. The latter reads like an election manifesto, all gloss and promises, with barely an acknowledgement of the criticism the scheme has received. It reeks of public relations.

The report says that "some people may have their enjoyment of the area's wild land qualities affected by the scheme", a reluctant admission amounting to a only few lines in the 28pp document. Given equally short shrift is the visual impact, which "in the medium to long term will be slight or negligible". But a different picture emerges from the section on hydrology in the 600pp report. This admits that loch levels will rise by up to two metres, and that there will be "a marked increase in the range of water levels". The report also notes that "in addition to the increase in the range of levels, the lochs will tend to stay at higher levels for longer periods once the scheme is operational." In other words, the shallow, infinitely variable shoreline that has taken 12,000 years to evolve will be entirely flooded or left out to dry. Either way, it will be gone for good.

Writing this a couple of days before the public consultation deadline, neither Scottish Natural Heritage nor the National Trust for Scotland (who own the adjoining Torridon estate) have yet published statements of their position regarding the scheme. Both said they were still studying the environmental impact assessment report.

Late news: the consultation period closed with 837 objections.

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