Nature Studies: Can the threat to the UK’s only true wilderness be seen off?

Soon the Scottish Government will either block or allow a massive wind farm in the Monadhliath mountains, and if it goes ahead the impact will be colossal

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The Independent Online

If you want to consider an idea whose meaning has changed, consider that of wilderness. In the past, the word conjured up a place of devastation, an empty wasteland – think of the Biblical associations of Jesus in the wilderness – but gradually the term has acquired positive overtones. We have come to see remaining wildernesses, or truly wild places, as the parts of the world where nature is at its most unspoiled, and so of enormous restorative value for us.

Nowhere has this perception taken hold quite like it has in North America, where it was formulated by 19th-century nature writers such as Henry David Thoreau and especially the Scots-born John Muir. The Americans established the world’s first national park – Yellowstone, in 1872, a full 77 years before the same thing happened in Britain – and the appreciation, indeed the cult of wilderness, grew ever stronger in the US in the 20th century, culminating in 1964 when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Wilderness Act, a law establishing a protection scheme for vast areas of untouched land, unlike anything else in the world.

In Britain, we have paid little heed to the concept of wilderness, partly because in the southern half of the country, at any rate, we have little of it: even the natural parks we eventually established, such as the Lake District or the Peak District, cover landscapes which may be mountainous, but are essentially farmed. But in Scotland, and in the Highlands especially, there really are large, remote tracts of land which merit the wilderness description; and since devolution, these have begun to be formally recognised as such.

The Scottish Government has gradually developed a new planning designation: Wild Land. A planning guidance note in 1999 defined it: “Uninhabited and often relatively inaccessible countryside where the influence of human activity on the character and quality of the environment has been minimal.” A policy paper in 2003 defined the value of Wild Land to society, and to Scotland’s identity; and last year, a comprehensive map of Wild Land areas was published.

 

The presumption is that these areas are special, and should be shielded from development: the first formal protection for wilderness, as such, that Britain has ever seen. But this protection is about to undergo its first serious test. Very soon, perhaps even this week, the Scottish Government will either block, or allow, a massive wind farm at Allt Duine in the Monadhliath mountains, where RWE npower, one of the Big Six energy companies, proposes to erect 31 wind turbines, each 410ft high – nearly two-and-a-half times the height of Nelson’s Column in London.

If it goes ahead, the visual impact will be colossal: the turbines will be visible from more than 63,000 acres of the Cairngorms National Park (they’re sited right on its edge), and from no fewer than 12 Munros (Scottish peaks more than 3,000ft high) and nine Corbetts (peaks above 2,500ft). But they will not only be on the edge of the national park: they will sit right in the middle of Wild Land Area 20, on the new map.

All the statutory bodies, such as Scottish Natural Heritage, are against it, as well as the regional and local councils; but the decision has been “called in” and is being taken personally by the Scottish Government’s Deputy First Minister, John Swinney.

Watch out for it; it is hugely important. Wind farms matter, but this is the wrong scheme in the wrong place. If Mr Swinney gives Allt Duine the go-ahead, it will not only be a desecration of the Highland landscape; but Britain’s first-ever policy designed specifically to protect wilderness will have fallen at the first hurdle.

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