Conservation quango concerned about threat of windfarm to endangered bird species

The view from Sand Water north up the Lang Kames. SNH believes this area of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), although not within the boundary of the windfarm, would be adversely affected by road improvements. Click on image to enlarge.
The view from Sand Water north up the Lang Kames. SNH believes this area of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), although not within the boundary of the windfarm, would be adversely affected by road improvements. Click on image to enlarge.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) has submitted a series of objections to the proposed Viking Energy windfarm, with concern centring on the adverse effect it would be likely to have on birds.

In its submission to the Scottish government’s Energy Consents Unit (ECU) the quango, one of four statutory consultees, echoes the remarks made by the RSBP about the loss of species such as red-throated diver, merlin, whimbrel and golden plover. The RSPB objected to the development in its submission published on Friday.

SNH has decided not to object to the impact the project, which will involve the construction of 150 wind turbines, 118km of access tracks and 14 borrow pits, is likely to have on peat, habitats, soil and water, although it has raised concerns about inconsistencies in Viking Energy’s estimates of the overall size of the development, the size of concrete bases for the turbines and the size of roads.

That, it says, makes it difficult to assess the carbon footprint of the development and the so-called carbon payback period, a measure of the time that elapses before the carbon gains from a renewable energy source become greater than the losses sustained during construction. Viking estimates this to be between 2.3 and 14.9 years.

SNH’s comments are restricted to the effect the windfarm is likely to have on the ecological natural heritage. The group has already advised the ECU that it regards the landscape and visual impact section of Viking’s environmental statement as “inadequate” and is seeking a revised version before commenting further.

On the issue of birds, SNH said some elements of the survey work went well beyond that normally presented in windfarm applications.

However, contrary to SNH guidance there had been very little discussion of the national or regional as opposed to local impact on any species.

The organisation says predicted bird losses as a result of construction and/or collisions with turbine blades are high enough to be of “significant” concern for the red-throated diver, merlin, golden plover, dunlin, whimbrel, arctic skua, lapwing, curlew and great skua.

In particular, it highlights the fact that with Shetland supporting around one-third of the British population of the red-throated diver, a population that is already declining, the loss of 2.6 breeding adults and 3.5 non-breeding adults a year would pose a “significant risk of causing a long-term population decline” in Shetland.

Similarly, the whimbrel, which has declined nationally by almost 40 per cent in the last two decades, would see a loss of 5.3 per cent of the national population.

Viking Energy assistant project officer David Thomson said that extensive work had been done by the company in conjunction with SNH and the RSPB on the impact the development was likely to have on birds.

He added that the process would not stop there. There would be ongoing dialogue and it was a possibility that some turbines would have to be moved to accommodate some of the concerns.

The planning process also leaves scope for there to be fewer turbines, although the limit below which the windfarm ceases to be economically viable has not been specified by Viking.

“We have gone out of our way to set a new standard in bird surveys, and in some ways we have made a rod for our backs in doing that,” Mr Thomson said.

He also confirmed that SNH had asked for revisions to the landscape and visual impact assessment before making public comment, although Glasgow-based firm Ash Design and Assessment, which produced those sections of the environmental statement, intended to defend its methodology.

On the peat and habitat side, SNH recommends that if the windfarm is given the go-ahead, four “ecological clerks of work”, supervised by an environmental manager, should be appointed with the authority to stop work if there is any environmental damage.

SNH says Viking has significantly underestimated the overall size of the development, calculating that each turbine would take up 0.3 hectares rather than the 0.2 it suggests.

“SNH therefore suggests that the actual footprint of the proposed windfarm is likely to be significantly greater than indicated in the [environmental statement] and recommends that a more accurate estimate be calculated by the applicant to assist in any further assessment made by the Scottish government.”

It points out inconsistencies in Viking’s estimates of the size of turbine bases (25m and 31m) and construction tracks (12m and 8m) and asks whether double width construction tracks are required. If they are, SNH advises that they be narrowed following construction.

SNH has also objected over the impact alterations to the B9075 road that runs from the bottom end of the Lang Kames to Weisdale and the junction with the A970 will have on the Sand Water Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Although the site is outside the boundary of the windfarm, SNH believes that excavation work and new drainage for the roads would mean sediment and waste water flowing into the SSSI, with adverse effects, and potentially damaging alterations to water courses.

It says this objection could be addressed by ensuring the road alterations are made to the north side of the B9075, ensuring no nutrients reach the SSSI, and housing construction workers nearby in regularly-maintained, sealed units.

Of the other statutory consultees, the RSPB has already objected to the windfarm while the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) is likely to make public its submission on Tuesday.

The fourth, Shetland Islands Council, is seeking an extension to its submission date after councillors insisted against legal advice on making a recommendation.

Prior to making this, however, a series of public meetings is due to be held across the isles to hear what people think of the proposals. The council is still waiting to hear whether it has been granted this extension.


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