Feathers fly over Hebrides wind farm plan

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In one corner, the developers of the world's biggest onshore wind farm. In the other, the world's biggest bird club.

In one corner, the developers of the world's biggest onshore wind farm. In the other, the world's biggest bird club.

The stage is set for a battle between them on the Scottish island of Lewis, which will be the fiercest clash yet in Britain over the wind farm issue.

The differences between those who think large-scale wind energy is vital in the fight against global warming, and those who see it as an industrialising despoiler of cherished landscapes and nature, have been getting more barbed over the past two years, and are dividing the Green movement. They will reach a new intensity on the Hebridean island.

There, British Energy and Amec are proposing a development of 234 wind turbines, each more than 400ft high, with 100 miles of access roads and 210 pylons; if it goes ahead it will be the biggest such scheme in the world.

But the million-member Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Europe's biggest wildlife conservation body and the world's biggest grouping of bird enthusiasts, announced its formal objection to the scheme - "in the strongest terms" - on the basis it would severely damage one of the most important wildlife sites in Britain, which is protected under European law, for a variety of rare birds, including golden eagles, merlins, black-throated divers, red-throated divers, dunlins and greenshanks. Large numbers of those species would be displaced or killed by the development, the RSPB said.

The developers stress other values. While acknowledging there will be some impact on birds, they are promising significant benefits from the mammoth project, for Britain's fight against global warming and for the communities of the Outer Hebrides.

They say its electricity-producing capacity of 720 megawatts would provide enough energy to supply the needs of more than a million people - without producing carbon dioxide, the waste gas responsible for climate change. By itself, they claim, it would meet about 6 per cent of the UK's renewable energy targets.

Furthermore, they say, the scheme would provide more than 300 jobs locally during the construction phase and support the creation of a further 350 jobs during its 25-year lifetime, and they anticipate it would provide an annual income to the Western Isles of between £6m and £8m through rental payments, payments to crofters, community funds and rates.

Since the planning application was submitted last November, 3,500 objections have been received by the Scottish Executive. The builders admit the development will result in the loss of at least 20 red-throated divers, 50 merlins, and 50 golden eagles - from collision with the structures - during the lifetime of the development. They also acknowledge 350 pairs of golden plover (1.5 per cent of the Great Britain and Ireland population) and 314 pairs of dunlin (4 per cent) will be lost because of displacement.

The RSPB said: "We believe that to be a significant underestimate and the development will have an adverse impact on whooper swans, white-tailed eagles and corncrakes."

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