Eye of the beholder

Chief reporter

In the Scottish Highlands this week councillors rejected plans for installing 48 wind turbines at sites near Tomatin for fear the towering machines would ‘trash’ the area’s ‘ephemeral atmosphere’.

Highland Council’s Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey planning committee objected the plans because, as the Strathspey & Badenoch Herald reported, it would have ‘a significant detrimental impact upon visual amenity and the enjoyment of… the area’.

As the paper put it, this includes ‘the historic ruined castle in the middle of Lochindorb…the stronghold from which the notorious Wolf of Badenoch, Alexander Stewart, extended his cruel grip over Strathspey in the 14th Century’.

The fierce opposition to wind farm developments is nothing unique to Scotland and it’s certainly nothing new. Those arguing for and against have both in their own way tried to claim the environmental mantle.

The pro-stance is easy to understand: wind energy is clean and renewable and rolling it out on a greater scale will help us move away from dirty fossil fuel sources.

Those opposed have a less clear pro-environment argument, but their case usually includes the turbines’ potential affect on local fauna or bird populations (or sea mammals in the case of offshore installations). As shown by the recent Scottish case, there’s also a conservationist point of view that unfettered deployment of wind farm installations could blot the increasingly scarce areas of natural beauty.

On that score, however, you have to take into account that well over 90 per cent of the UK landscape is man-made; the Highlands would be almost entirely covered in conifer forest if it weren’t for clearing for subsistence agriculture and, most notoriously, for sheep farming in the 18th and 19th centuries.

While not so much a ‘green argument’, there are also the reported cases of so-called ‘wind turbine syndrome’. Despite numerous health studies refuting the connection, some residents living nearby wind farms have claimed that low frequency noise or shadow flicker from blades can cause an almost sea sickness.

It’d be tough to find anyone against wind energy in principle, but the case in Tomatin is another example of residents not wanting it in their back yard.

While opponents in the Highland argue the turbines would scare tourists away from their historic sites, their fears may be allayed by a survey taken of visitors to Argyll and Bute in West Scotland in 2002 when three large commercial wind farms were in operation in the area.

The survey conducted by Ipsos MORI found that 43 per cent of participants thought the ‘presence of a wind farm had positive effect’ and only 8 per cent said had a negative effect. When asked about the impact on the likelihood of visiting area in future, 91 per cent said ‘it made no difference’.

Just this week on a trip to Paris, I remarked while looking at the Eiffel Tower how funny it was that when it was put up in the late 1800s Parisians revolted and called for the eyesore to be torn down. Hundreds of years later I am asked by a family of tourists to take their picture in front of it.

As I rode home on the Eurostar the next morning I spotted three wind turbines spinning in the distance. Their blades looked like children cartwheeling across the French countryside. I couldn’t help but smile and wonder how these elegantly engineered machines could be considered a blight on the view.

How would you feel about a wind farm being constructed near you? We welcome your comments.