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The largest ever wind farm planned in the Highlands has been thrown out by an appeal judge. Conservation charity the John Muir Trust sought a judicial review of the Scottish Government’s decision to give the go ahead to a controversial 67-turbine Stronlairg wind farm in the famous Monahdliath Mountains.

Energy Minister Fergus Ewing had granted permission for SSE Renewables’ project at Stronelairg, near Fort Augustus. The John Muir Trust charity lodged a petition to the Court of Session asking for a judicial review of his decision to grant consent without any public local inquiry. Lord Jones, who carried out the judicial review, said ministers reached their decision on SSE’s project “in breach of environmental obligations”.

The court heard that Scottish Natural Heritage had objected in principle to the wind farm’s proposed site. Lord Jones said: “If the ministers did take into consideration SNH’s objection in principle to any wind farm development at Stronelairg, they have given no reason for rejecting it, and the decision is defective on that account.”

The public was also denied an opportunity to comment on a revised planning application for the proposed wind farm, the judge said. He said the government’s decision to give consent should be set aside. It was claimed the wind farm could generate enough electricity to power 114,000 homes. The operators also said it would bring £30 million worth of benefits to the region.

However, the John Muir Trust said the development would “destroy the character” of an area of wild land. They said the 67-turbine development would have extended over an area the size of Inverness. The charity claimed 70 per cent of the Stronelairg site consisted of wet peatland, Scotland’s miniature version of the rainforest, and would have faced severe disruption as a result of the excavation of 22 million cubic feet of stone from the area.

Lord Jones ruled in his decision that members of the public had been denied the opportunity to comment on a revised planning application for the proposed wind farm, and that Scottish Ministers did not take into account Scottish Natural Heritage’s objection in principle to any wind farm development at Stronelairg.

Stuart Brooks, John Muir Trust Chief Executive said: “This is great news for all those who love Scotland’s wild land and wish to see it protected. “A financial appeal brought a tremendous level of support from over a thousand well-wishers, allowing the Trust to proceed.

Lord Jones has now decided the Trust’s court action was well-founded.” “Due to the impact this approval had on a wild land area – which led to Scottish National Heritage removing a significant area from its Wild Land Areas map – the Trust very reluctantly took this judicial review against the government.”

Lord Jones concluded that the Trust was taking the action for the public good. He said: “The interest of any non-governmental organisation, such as the trust, is deemed sufficient. The question, therefore, is not whether the trust was prejudiced, but whether members of the public were prejudiced.” Mr Brooks said: “Lord Jones rightly identified that this case was taken and won in the public interest so the right thing for Scottish Ministers to do is not to appeal this decision.

“The Trust will now be asking Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Government to reinstate the Stronelairg area in the Wild Land Areas map, giving an important piece of our natural heritage – including vast swathes of peatland which help to mitigate climate change – some measure of protection.

“SSE should recognise that this was the wrong development, of the wrong size and in the wrong place. The company now has an opportunity to show that they are listening to communities and tourism bodies and to engage with others to revitalise the natural environment there rather than pursue this damaging development which would cover a footprint the size of Inverness.

“Lessons need to be learned from the lack of proper procedure and incorrect decision-making by the government.” SSE had sought permission for up to 83 turbines at Stronelairg near its Glendoe hydro electric scheme above Fort Augustus. However, in April 2013, Highland councillors voted 11 to three in favour of raising no objection on the understanding the project was reduced to 67 turbines.

Monadhliath Mountains

The Monadhliath Mountains are a range of mountains in Scotland that it lies on the western side of Strathspey, to the west of the Cairngorms and to the south east of Loch Ness.

The range is within the Highland council area, and the south and east fringes are within the Cairngorms National Park, but is not as popular as the English Lake District. The Monadhliath Mountains are designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC).

The Monadh Liath differs greatly in character from the greater Highland mountains to south and west, as an elevated moorland with no proper ridges. The four Munros are all on the Spey rim, three making a classic circuit from Newtonmore; the interior is rarely visited. The main valley within the Monadh Liath is the Findhorn. It is unusually sinuous, being an incised meandering river valley very little altered by glaciers.

The landscape of the Monadh Liath is one of the most ancient in Britain, its essentials as a secondary massif flanking the Cairngorms having evolved continuously since the Caledonian Mountains were created over 400 million years ago.

Thus the land surface still slopes gently northwest towards the Great Glen, away from the main Grampian divide which crosses the Cairngorms.

Although icesheets have repeatedly covered the Monadh Liath, they have done little to change its character: there are no corries away from the Munros fringe, and only a few short glaciated troughs, notably Glen Killin on the north.

It has just become recognised that thin ice on the plateau is frozen to the ground, but as it starts to flow into the troughs it thickens, accelerates, and warms up so it can erode and enlarge them. This has occurred as recently as the very last (Younger Dryas) glacial period ~12000 years ago.

Until the last few years, the Monadh Liath interior was remote and desolate, a naturally treeless and largely trackless wilderness, one of the last large tracts of ‘wild land’ in human terms at least, known only to a few deer and grouse enthusiasts.

The renewable energy gold rush has already led to the Glendoe hydro-electric scheme above Fort Augustus. The actual reservoir and dam are not unduly intrusive, but the extensive network of heavy-duty access roads to service all the weirs diverting water into the catchment have altered the remotenerss and wildness factors.

They will also facilitate very large wind energy projects, which are encouraged by the proximity of the high-capacity Beauly-Denny power transmission line over Corrieyairack Pass.

Energy Farm

In the Scottish Highlands, plans for the Allt Duine Wind Farm, which will be situated on the edge of Cairngorms National Park in the Monadhliath Mountains, have also been met with opposition. Cairngorms is Britain’s largest national park, covering 4528 sq kilometres and housing five of Scotland’s six highest mountains, meaning a wind farm would be visible from surrounding summits.

Chris Townsend, who lives in the park and represents the action group Save the Monadhliath Mountains, says they are not against renewable energy, or wind farms for that matter, but are opposed to the proposed location of the Allt Duine farm.

‘We’re objecting to a major industrial construction on wild land,’ he says. ‘It happens to be a wind farm. But I would certainly object to anything else being built up there, whether it was a tourist development, like a ski resort, or a hydro scheme or any other type of development.’

Townsend describes the Monadhliath as lonely, wild, beautiful and peaceful – a vast area of rolling moorlands and stream valleys with a few dramatic peaks. A councillor described it as a place for connoisseurs, he says. ‘You have to go into it, and appreciate the details and the quiet and the wildlife. But all of this will be completely destroyed by having a huge wind farm bang in the middle of it.’ There’s also concern about the rare golden eagles that inhabit the area, and the impact spinning turbines could have on the birds.

Townsend worries wind has become a free-for-all from which wealthy landowners reap the benefits. ‘Most of these Scottish Highlands are in private hands, and there’s not that much control over what the landowners can do.’ He says owners of such huge estates agree to take money from turbine companies in exchange for building rights, which encourages such companies to submit applications. ‘I think this is unsatisfactory all round,’ Townsend says. ‘The only people who really benefit from it are the landowners.’

Golden Eagles on the Rise

Golden eagles are flying high again over an ancient mountain range in the Highlands where they have suffered illegal persecution.

The majestic bird of prey’s numbers are now at their highest in over a century in certain parts of the Monadhliath Mountains.

The eagles are also returning to areas from which they have been previously absent, said the Highland Partnership Against Wildlife Crime.

Following the conclusion of the nesting and breeding season for 2017, the HPAW North Monadhliaths Subgroup said that there are “positive signs” in the area, but there is still room for improvement.

Reports from the Royal Society for Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Highland Raptor Study Group show that the overall population of golden eagles in the area has increased and positive sightings of goshawks, buzzards, ospreys and red kites have also been recorded by Forest Enterprise Scotland.