The Angry Corrie 59: Oct-Dec 2003

"It isn't pristine but it's pretty good" - why upland Kincardineshire deserves to be seen as more than simply a windfarm-in-waiting

by Charles Gladstone

First, I'd better declare my hand: I'm a landowner. About 15 years ago I inherited a chunk of Kincardineshire. You'll have heard this said before, but I don't really consider my interest in the land to be "ownership". "Stewardship" is a better word. Whatever you call it, for better or worse, it is me and my advisors who decide what happens on Glen Dye and Fasque Estates: where trees and crops get planted, when footpaths are repaired, where the gamekeepers work. I love my patch and live here with my wife and six children.

I'm interested in the social fabric of the Scottish countryside, in keeping people living and working in remote rural areas. It's important that those who live in the countryside are connected, in a real way, to the soil, to nature. These are people who know what a magpie does, where the best mushrooms grow, where the foxes return year after year to rear their young. And I do all I can to make sure that these working men and women stay working in the countryside. I'm also interested in the natural environment, in biodiversity, and in the way the environment looks. We don't have many natural resources in Scotland, but we do have large swathes of wonderful countryside. And we need people to visit this countryside: locals, foreigners, Londoners, walkers, runners, shooters.

Why do these people visit the more remote corners of Scotland? For lots of reasons, but crucially because Scotland is beautiful and relatively pristine. I'm a runner and a walker and I love the solitude of the hills. I understand completely why people come here: for the views, for the air, for the unique feeling that being alone in the Scottish hills gives them. I'm doing my very best to welcome people - and it follows that part of my job is to protect the landscape they come to enjoy.

In the last few years I've been approached by a number of companies keen to investigate the siting of windfarms on my ground. Glen Dye is of appeal to these companies because we have hills and wind and, crucially, a good-sized road, the B974, running through the estate. Good access is a vital component in the siting of windfarms because it keeps the cost of installation and maintenance down.

Initially I was very tempted by these propositions: they came with the promise of huge sums of money, sums that would have allowed me to make incredible improvements to the estate. There was also the promise of big chunks of cash for the "community": a piano for the village hall, a decent playground for the park, that sort of thing. Money that would, in essence, shut the locals up should they complain about the installation of industrial turbines on their patch.

At first glance it all seemed so simple. The energy companies get to site their windfarm on my ground. I get a lot of money. The government gets to fulfil its obligation to create green energy. I get to feel good because I'm part of the green-energy revolution. And the turbines don't look too bad, do they? And 90 metres isn't that big, is it? In fact, they are actually quite majestic, aren't they?

Well ... I took a good look around and changed my mind. I spoke to experts in Scotland and the USA, and had a look at the Danish experience of windfarms. I discovered that the windfarm would result in virtually no local long-term or mid-term employment - in short, the only local who might benefit would be me. And I learnt that the energy created would be burnt somewhere else entirely. (I don't know where, but certainly not here in Scotland; we produce a surplus anyway thanks to the hydroelectric.) So it seemed to me that there would be little local, or even national, benefit to siting a windfarm on Glen Dye.

image from TAC59

I also learnt that the Danes were pioneers in land-based windfarms but are now abandoning their programme. I visited windfarms and I went to London and stood beneath Nelson's Column. I realised how big 90 metres is. I learnt that windfarms have a negative impact on biodiversity. I discovered that Westminster is keen to see windfarms based at sea because they are far more efficient there and, just as crucially, because they can't be seen by walkers and residents and all the other people who don't like the idea of bigger roads and vast industrial structures clogging up our last remaining tracts of countryside. I discovered a massive body of environmentalists working against windfarms. I drove along the B974, the fabled Cairn o'Mount road, time and time again. And I stood at the top and thought how absurd it was to site 25 mammoth turbines on the boundary line where tens of thousands of visitors would be greeted not by heather moorland, trees and Clochnaben's magnificent granite tor but, instead, by turbines that would make Nelson's Column look small. So I went back to the foreign-owned energy company and said no, and they went on their way. Then another company approached me about a slightly different site and again I said no. Then another...

I'm a supporter of green energy, of the idea that we must work to burn less fossil fuel. But I don't think land-based windfarms are the answer, and this is the essence of my concern. Real doubts about their viability are being widely expressed, and I think all land-based windfarms should be put on hold until there has been a detailed study of their long-term viability. No one who loves the countryside wants it lumbered, in ten years' time, with vast industrial structures that are, quite simply, unviable.

The key things are that the government has an obligation to create clean energy, wind is freely available in the hills, and it is far cheaper to site these turbines on land than at sea. It makes sense to stick turbines in the hills because there aren't many local residents to complain. Locals can be a real nuisance to energy companies because they don't like these structures near their homes. But these remote sites are, by definition, the very places we should cherish as our last remaining vestiges of wilderness.

Eventually the energy companies left me alone because, it transpired, they had found an excellent site on the boundary of my estate: on "Forestry" Commission land. Because the British timber market has collapsed due to cheap imports, the FC has been having a tough time. So it has decided to turn to wind power, chopping down trees to make way for turbines. I imagine that the FC executives have done their research and know that land-based turbines are widely regarded as a red herring. But it doesn't really matter to them because they don't live near to the turbines and their main concern is to balance the books in the short term.

My point is simple. We have an extraordinary asset in the Grampians: pure undisturbed moorland. It isn't pristine but it's pretty good. It's loved by millions from all over the world, precisely because it is about as undisturbed as anywhere in western Europe. I want it to stay that way, to be there for my children and my grandchildren. But the government wants green energy (I'm with them there) and wants to provide it cheaply with minimum hassle through a privatised - and consequently unstable - system. Ministerial logic dictates that turbines should be sited away from centres of population so that the nimbys will leave them alone. But in so doing, havoc is wreaked on one of our most precious natural resources. If ever there was a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul, this is it.

My hunch is that the proposal to build a windfarm next door - at Midhill, Fetteresso - will go ahead. And, amazingly enough, I'm not sure that many locals care. But I do care about my patch. I want people to walk on Glen Dye, to climb Clochnaben, to look out over a landscape filled with rocks and trees and heather. I want to protect all this from the lethal combination of short-sighted government policy and corporate greed. I'm a nimby and I'm proud of it. After all, to paraphrase Robert F Kennedy Jnr (who said it of the Hudson River), the first duty of an environmentalist must be to protect their own backyard.

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