Millionaire eagles given grouse moor

  • @mjpmccarthy
IN WHAT may be the most expensive piece of conservation seen in Britain, measured bird for bird, pounds 2m is being spent to protect two golden eagles.

The "million-pound" birds will benefit from a specially created grouse moor that, it is hoped, will tempt them from the site of the country's most powerful windfarm.

The eagles are one of only two breeding pairs on the Kintyre peninsula in western Scotland, and the wind farm, to be built on the edge of their hunting area, would expose them to enormous danger. Its 46 rotating turbines will stand more than 200ft high, presenting a potential death- trap to the big predators with their seven-foot wingspans.

So Scottish Power, the wind farm's developer, has agreed to rip out several hundred acres of young upland forest away from the site and regenerate the moorland as prime habitat for red grouse, the eagles' principal prey species, in the hope that this will en- courage them to keep their distance.

The cost of the project may be high, but it is regarded as worthwhile by the power company, and essential by the local council and the wildlife groups involved.

The wind farm, to be built on the top of the 1,500ft Beinn an Tuirc peak in the centre of the peninsula, dramatically illustrates the hard choices involved in the switch to some renewable energy sources such as wind power. Wind farms produce none of the carbon dioxide that is the principal cause of global warming, and so are generally much welcomed by environmentalists. Yet their turbines, usually placed on unspoilt hillsides, can scar the landscape, and at Beinn an Tuirc, for the first time in Britain, a wind farm is coming into potential conflict with rare wildlife.

Dan Hunt, the local officer of Scottish Natural Heritage, Scotland's wildlife agency, said: "We don't know what happens in Britain when you get golden eagles near a wind farm. It's never happened before. So this is a real experiment."

The initial plan for the pounds 20m plant, the most powerful in Britain with its capacity to generate 30 megawatts of electricity supplying 25,000 homes, will be on Beinn an Tuirc's open moorland with no mitigating factors to prevent the eagles flying into its turbines.

But Argyll and Bute council, in consultation with Scottish Natural Heritage and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, persuaded Scottish Power to make two important changes - to site half the turbines within nearby forest, over which eagles do not hunt, and to create the new grouse moor to the north of the huge development.

For the latter, the company is spending its pounds 2m on turning 900 acres of immature forest back into heather and managing it for grouse by reducing the sheep grazing, with a full-time warden.

"We hope it will keep the eagles away and that it's a win-win situation," said Mr Hunt. "We've got renewable energy, which we support, and we keep the eagles."

Golden eagles need open moorland over which to hunt and one of the local concerns has been the drastic drop in the eagle population of Kintyre because of afforestation.

In the 1960s, between eight and ten pairs bred on the peninsula, but since then more than half of the land has been planted with conifers and the breeding pairs have fallen to two. Scotland has about 430 pairs of golden eagles. The wind farm at Beinn an Tuirc is likely to be operational in about two years. It is hoped the turbines may be manufactured in the redundant shipyard in nearby Campbeltown, providing new jobs for the local economy. The yard at Campbeltown, Kintyre's main town and port, closed 18 months ago.

Britain has 44 wind farms with a total output of 350 megawatts, a tiny fraction of the nation's energy demand. But government policy is to provide 10 per cent of all electricity generation from renewable sources by the year 2010.