Conference looks to balance our energy needs with preserving the countrysideScotland’s wild places have been havens of inspiration for travellers and artists for centuries. They have been associated with stillness and reflection, a place to get away from the confinement of built-up environments.A burning 21st-century issue, however, is looming ominously over Scotland’s special landscapes, threatening their sanctity. It is a twisted conundrum: green energy versus environmental protection.
Some believe that unless a resolution is found, Scotland’s wilderness could become scarred beyond repair.
Later this month the public are invited to join environmental groups for a conference near Perth to discuss the future of Scotland’s wild landscapes. Organised by the Centre of Mountain Studies at Perth College UHI, the meeting aims to establish the key threats facing these areas and what can be done to minimise them.
A recent VisitScotland survey cited the beauty of Scotland’s landscape as the chief reason overseas visitors come here. A report by Scottish Natural Heritage said the amount of land unaffected by visual intrusion from built development was cut by a quarter in six years between 2002 and 2008. Clearly, the two issues are at odds.
The passing of the Beauly-Denny powerline upgrade in January, with its 137 miles of 35m-tall pylons, brought this debate into focus. More than 18,000 objections were received and the longest public inquiry since devolution ensued. Since the decision, the dissatisfaction has hardly abated. This is not a problem that will go away quickly, so this conference is timely.
“I think wild land, as a resource, is undervalued. It is not well protected or placed on the priority list,” says Dr Robert McMorran, research associate at the Centre of Mountain Studies. He hopes the meeting will enable stakeholders in Scotland’s wild places to form a unified message and build the framework for a coherent strategy – something the government, he feels, has lacked when it comes to developments in key areas of outstanding natural beauty.
“The strategy seems willy-nilly. I think that is why there were so many objections. Like pylons, wind farms in themselves are not bad, the key issue is matching developments to the correct sites.”
For groups such as Highlands Before Pylons, which campaigned vociferously against the Beauly-Denny upgrade, the feeling of powerlessness they experienced when the decision went against them has left many disillusioned. McMorran feels part of the problem has been that the importance of Scotland’s wild land has not penetrated the national conscience. Finding a way forward will be an objective of the conference.
“I think what has happened is that the wild land debate has become marginalised. People think it is all about people keeping others out, or strange bearded people wanting to go for a walk. It is much more serious. Scotland’s wild landscapes are crucial to biodiversity targets. They support diverse communities. Wild land supports ecosystems and supplies clean water. It is also hugely important when it comes to wildlife and tourism. In Caithness and Sutherland, the peatlands are among the country’s biggest carbon stores.
“There has to be a greater awareness of the important benefits wild land gives to Scotland. If this happens, there could be a way forward for all parties.”
The John Muir Trust, the wild land protection agency, recently highlighted that even national park status did not prevent the power line upgrade being approved to go through the Cairngorms.
“What we want is better statutory protection of wild land,” said a spokesman. At next week’s conference they, and others, hope to speak up for wild places. The land, after all, cannot speak for itself.
Scotland’s Wild Landscapes: New Ways Forward, 13 and 14 May. SNH Battleby Centre, near Perth. www.wildlands.info
• This article was first published in the Scotsman, May 8, 2010