Power farms sail close to wind: Plans to generate electricity from alternative sources have split local communities and environmentalists. Oliver Gillie reports

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The Independent Online
BULLDOZERS have broken the earth within a few hundred yards of an ancient Celtic standing stone and four Bronze Age burial mounds on St Breock Downs, near Wadebridge in Cornwall. Ground that has lain undisturbed for 4,000 years is being prepared for 11 windmills which will each stand 175ft (53m) high, dominating the skyline for 20 miles around.

The St Breock windfarm has been approved by a Department of the Environment inquiry in spite of opposition from Cornwall County Council, North Cornwall District Council and the Grand Bard of the Cornish Gorsedd, Cornwall's traditional assembly.

On St Breock Downs, the environmentalists' dream of harnessing free energy from the wind has come up against the interests of those who treasure a natural landscape. This same clash of interests is now being repeated in hundreds of sites earmarked for windfarm development all over Britain.

Angus Lamond, a parish councillor in St Breock, sees the windfarm on his doorstep as a tragic clash of ideology. 'Why are these windmills being erected on such prominent sites and near ancient burial mounds? The standing stone is already degraded in its majesty by a large scar right next to it on the skyline. I can't see how this fits in with the ideas of Ernst Schumacher (the founding father of alternative technology), that small is beautiful. Schumacher also talked about social empathy, but there is no social empathy in allowing a planning inspector to overrule local democracy.' The St Breock windfarm is being built by Ecogen, the largest windpower company in Britain and builder of a windfarm at Llandinam in mid-Wales which has 103 turbines. Ecogen is financed by a Japanese company, Tomen.

Charlotte Barry, a spokeswoman for Ecogen, said: 'Whether you like wind turbines or not is a very subjective thing. We don't think that they despoil the countryside.'

The first sign that someone is interested in putting up a windfarm is often an anemometer, a small windmill used to make measurements. Alerted by this, people in several parts of the country are forming pressure groups to oppose new windfarms.

A desolate moor at Flaight Hill, near Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire, has been obtained as a site for 44 wind turbines by a company called National Wind Power, but the plan is being opposed by a powerful lobby of people which includes David Bellamy, the television botanist. Groups such as English Nature, the World Wide Fund for Nature, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust say the moor is an irreplaceable site of international importance for breeding birds.

The Flaight Hill site also has powerful literary connections which, the pressure groups argue, provide reason alone to halt the proposed windfarm. Ted Hughes, the Poet Laureate, was born at Mytholmroyd, three miles from the site, and his first wife, Sylvia Plath, the poet who killed herself at the age of 31, is buried near by in the small churchyard at Heptonstall. The Bronte family lived at Haworth, a few miles from the proposed windfarm and roamed the moors around Flaight Hill, the inspiration for the harsh countryside portrayed in their novels. The largest windfarm in Europe will soon be built by Ecogen at Humble Hill in the middle of Kielder Forest in Northumberland. With 267 turbines, it qualifies as a power station and so must obtain final approval from the Department of Trade and Industry.

The site is so isolated that the plan has not been opposed by the local authorities, Tynedale District Council and Northumberland County Council. But the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the Newcastle and Northumberland Society are against it. Because the windmills will be seen as far away as Hadrian's Wall, they say this will ruin a landscape valued by walkers for its remoteness. Ben Plowden of the CPRE said: 'Environmentalists talk about windpower as if it was a free lunch, but there is no such thing. Worries about windmills cannot be dismissed as vague aesthetic considerations of no importance. That ignores the fact that these landscapes have been cherished and protected for a very long time.'

Similar controversies are in progress over the siting of windmills at Caldbeck on the northern edge of the Lake District, on the Black Hill on the border of England and Wales, and in Anglesey, Wiltshire, and Suffolk.

Friends of the Earth, who promote windmills as a source of renewable energy, say some developers have pushed plans through insensitively. Fiona Weightman, a spokeswoman, said: 'A lot of people do not find windfarms visually intrusive. Many people feel proud when they see them working because they know that wind power is more environmentally friendly than burning fossil fuels.'

(Photograph and map omitted)