Forestry Commission accused of betraying its responsibility by allowing windfarms on its hills

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The Independent Online

The Forestry Commission is betraying its responsibilities to the landscape by allowing its mountains and hills to be used for giant windfarms, countryside campaigners claim.

Britain's biggest landowner, with more than a million hectares (2.5 million acres) of land in England, Scotland and Wales, is involved in no fewer than 27 windfarm developments in all three countries.

In 24 cases, it is leasing the land for energy companies to site wind turbines on directly, and in the other three it is leasing land to give access to the generating sites. This is just the start, and it is likely that many more windfarms will be built on forestry land as the Government aims to provide 20 per cent of Britain's energy from renewable sources by 2020 to combat climate change.

The vast majority of the sites are in Scotland, where - in a remarkable but hitherto little-noticed phenomenon now being termed "the scramble for wind" - more than 400 windfarms have been proposed in two years, and nearly 200 are under consideration.

The windpower developments on commission land - three built, one under construction, 11 in the planning stage and 12 on the drawing board - are generally in the uplands, and typically involve siting windmills up to 300ft high on ridges or mountains where strong winds are constant.

By their nature, these developments will have an effect on the landscape - enormous, say opponents, limited, say the developers. But for the commission to allow them at all, opponents say, is in direct conflict with its obligation to look after the countryside it owns on the public's behalf.

For the commission to refrain from planting trees on hilltops - as it often does, to safeguard natural landscape features - but then allow wind turbines to be planted there instead is a nonsense, they say.

A characteristic example is at Inverliever Forest in Argyll, where Scottish Power has proposed placing 22 turbines, each 93 metres (302ft) high, on the ridge that runs between Loch Awe and Loch Avich, two of Scotland's loveliest lakes. The ridge, which reaches 1,800ft, and offers vast panoramas out to the Inner Hebrides, is at the heart of the huge forest, but has been deliberately left free of trees by the commission. Scottish Power claims the visual impact of the development will be limited, but so far more than 400 objections to the scheme have been received at the district planning office of Argyll and Bute council in Oban, including letters from America, Germany and France. Many of the objectors feel the development is out of place in such an unspoiled area where tourism is a mainstay of the economy. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds fears it is a threat to local golden eagles and other rare species.

But what angers some local opponents most is the commission's role as the site provider. "The commission holds vast tracts of land of prime scenic, recreational, and ecological value," said Christine Metcalfe, who lives on the shores of Loch Avich. "It is now inflicting a damaging form of industrial development upon the very landscapes and habitats which it has a duty to conserve. Its officials have been unable to provide a convincing justification for this surrender of stewardship." The Commission replies that it has no statutory duty to protect the landscape; that the Forestry Commissioners are within their rights under the Forestry Act, 1967, to dispose of land as they see fit; and that in seeking to promote renewable energy they are following government policy.

However, it acknowledges that in the past 20 years it has tried hard to follow a sensitive landscape policy, in contrast to the unthinking blanket afforestation of the uplands with massed ranks of dark conifers which took place before the 1980s, and for which it was much criticised. Its booklet, Forest Landscape Design, proclaims that "the need, and indeed vision, of a better landscape is central to that quest of both foresters and a wider public who use and enjoy forests". A decision not to plant trees on a mountain top is a decision for the commission; but a decision to site a windfarm there is one for the planning authority, it points out.

Yet this washing of hands cuts no ice with botanist and television presenter David Bellamy. "Of course they have a duty to look after the landscape," Professor Bellamy said. "By allowing these windfarms, they are helping to spoil some of the most beautiful and recreational landscapes in Britain.

"They are betraying their responsibilities to millions of people who want to escape from the urban sprawl. Windfarms are damaging to landscapes; they contain industrial structures the height of St Paul's cathedral which destroy any sense of remoteness. This is our national forest, and they're meant to be guardians of it."