A map published by Scotland’s natural heritage body has defined the country’s wild land for the first time. How have environmental and outdoor campaigners reacted? And what does it mean for the ongoing battle over wind farms?
Measuring a concept like ‘wildness’ might seem a challenging task. Ideas of what counts as ‘wild’ differ from person to person; what looks like a wilderness to a lifetime city-dweller might seem relatively tame to a backcountry veteran.
But that’s exactly what has been done in Scotland. The body responsible for Scotland’s natural environment, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), has recently published a map detailing the areas of Scotland deemed to be ‘core areas of wild land character.’
First conceived more than a decade ago, it identifies 43 areas it defines as core wild land. The boundaries of these areas have been drawn by a combination of four criteria: the perceived naturalness of the land cover; the ruggedness of the terrain; remoteness from public roads or ferries; and visible lack of buildings, roads, pylons and other modern artefacts.
As might be expected, the areas on the map are clustered towards the north and west of Scotland: renowned wild areas like Rannoch, Torridon, Knoydart, Assynt and the Cairngorms all feature. But there are also some ‘surprise’ inclusions: areas which, if developments currently in the planning pipeline go ahead, may not be wild for much longer.
The Scottish government has also released guidelines for future planning which announce an outright ban on wind turbine development within National Parks and National Scenic Areas, putting one third of the country off-limits for wind turbines. It also recommends giving stronger protection to the newly-defined core wild land areas.
Scottish wild land shrinking
The moves are significant for the debates and arguments that have raged over Scotland’s natural landscape in recent years. There has been a growing concern amid environmental and recreational campaigners that the amount of wild land in Scotland was shrinking rapidly; a concern fed by SNH’s own statistic that the amount of land ‘unaffected visually by built development’ in Scotland had fallen from 41% in 2002 to 28% in 2008.
This drop was widely attributed to the increasing numbers of wind farms being built in upland areas as part of the Scottish Government’s renewable energy drive.
One of the most prominent critics of the effect on wild landscapes from this turbine-building push was the John Muir Trust (JMT), which has been calling for a special designation to protect wild landscapes.
The JMT has welcomed the publication of the map and guidelines, with Chief Executive Stuart Brooks saying: “Along with other conservation and outdoors organisations, the John Muir Trust has waged a long campaign to protect Scotland’s wild and scenic landscapes from industrial-scale development.
“We are pleased that the Scottish Government recognises the importance of wild land as an important part of our cultural heritage and international profile.”
Notably, the proposed sites for a number of highly controversial wind turbine developments have been included in the wild land map, such as the Stronelairg proposal, which would place 67 turbines, each about two and a half times the height of Nelson’s column, on the wild peatland of the Monodhliath Mountains.
Regarding these proposals, the JMT said: “In the light of the content of today’s consultation documents, we would hope that these will now be reconsidered by the relevant planning authorities.”
The BMC’s sister organisation, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland (MCofS), has also been vocal in objecting to wind farm proposals it believes are wrong for wild areas, outlining its concerns in a wind farm manifesto published last year and supported by the BMC.
It was less impressed by the map, pointing out the substantial gaps between the core wild land areas. Chief officer David Gibson told the BBC: "We are disappointed at the apparent lack of provision of buffer zones around national scenic areas and national parks.
"From the map it appears that mountain areas in Scotland could appear like islands surrounded by a sea of turbines."
"Hardly a positive move in this Year of Natural Scotland."
But one of the most enthusiastic receptions to the map and guidelines came from outdoor writer, broadcaster and SNP member Cameron McNeish. In a column for the Walk Highlands website, he wrote: “I personally don’t like windfarms – I think they are ugly, they damage the environment and I have yet to be convinced that they are efficient at producing the amount of energy we will need in the future. But I am in the minority. Poll after poll has shown that wind energy has cross-party political support and strong public support.
“Despite the public support for windfarms the Scottish Government is well aware that here, on the very edge of Europe, we have some of the most marvellous landscapes imaginable and that those landscapes should be protected, not only for future generations to enjoy, but for the wildlife that needs such landscapes to exist and thrive in.
"In an attempt to find a balance between ensuring future energy needs in the face of diminishing fossil fuels, combating climate change, contributing to climate justice and protecting the finest of our natural landscapes the Government has gone a long way to meet the calls of the likes of the John Muir Trust and the Mountaineering Council of Scotland for a national planning policy that specifically identifies areas that should be spared from industrialisation."