Britain's largest ever offshore wind farm could be sunk before it is built - by a small but very rare black duck.
Naturalists have recently calculated that up to 20,000 common scoter - far more than previously thought - spend the winter on the wind-battered waters of Shell Flats, about 8km off Blackpool, making it the second largest home for the bird in the British Isles.
But two of Britain's largest energy companies, Shell and Scottish Power, and a major Danish developer want to turn Shell Flats into the UK's flagship offshore wind farm. They have applied to build 90 130m-high wind turbines on the site, at a cost of £350m. But, in a legal battle that threatens the Government's plans for a massive expansion of offshore wind farms, conservationists are preparing to take the Government to the European Court of Justice if the project gets the go-ahead.
English Nature and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) have formally warned ministers that they believe Shell Flats threaten the area's scoter flocks, and are pressing for a public inquiry into the proposals.
The common scoter is on the UK's "red list" of critically endangered birds because the number of breeding pairs has fallen to roughly 80. But its much larger wintering population, thought to total 30,000 across Britain, could be seriously harmed if the wind farm goes ahead, English Nature claims.
Allan Drewitt, one of the agency's ornithologists, said this characteristically skittish duck would be easily scared off by the wind farm's construction and routine boat voyages to service it, forcing the 20,000 birds there to fight for scarce food elsewhere. Birds could also be killed by wind turbine blades.
"You couldn't have picked a worse place for a wind farm," he said. "It's slap bang in the middle of the biggest concentration ever recorded in England. If the developers persist, they're going to face a great deal of opposition and a very strong case against them."
Their criticisms, which will dominate a major conference on offshore wind power in London this week, are seen by both sides as a key test case for the future of 15 huge sea-based wind farms now being planned. The Energy minister, Stephen Timms, is expected to confirm when he opens the event that offshore projects should help to generate 20 per cent of Britain's electricity by 2020; even larger schemes are planned for the Wash, the Thames estuary and waters off north-west England.
But experts fear that other serious but unforeseen ecological problems could emerge. They could displace or kill migratory and wintering seabirds, harm sea mammals such as dolphins and porpoises with the noise and disruption of construction and rotors; and damage key fish stocks.
Critics in both the wind industry and the conservation movement claim this crisis has escalated because Whitehall has badly mishandled the approvals process, in its rush to give wind energy its support. Under European Union law, the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) is required to carry out detailed "strategic environmental assessments" to ensure marine developments, including oil and gas fields, do not unnecessarily harm sealife.
Experts claim, however, the DTI's assessments have been cursory and too dependent on existing data, and fear they have failed to spot serious environmental problems.
As a result, these problems will increase the nervousness among City investors and shareholders about the economic viability of wind power. The DTI insists their assessments are meant only as a "guide" to developers, but one source retorted: "We've stated to the DTI and Department of the Environment that if they think Shell Flats is a difficult case, they haven't seen anything yet."
Mark Avery, deputy chief executive of the RSPB, is to raise the charity's concerns at this week's conference, and will warn, "If this project goes ahead, the environmental credentials of offshore wind will be badly damaged. If the Government allows it, it will be breaking European law."
However, Malcolm Garrity, a spokesman for Shell Flats' developers, was still optimistic they could reach an agreement with English Nature and the RSPB.
"We're still in discussions about trying to work our way around things, by carrying out studies and looking at various solutions," he said.