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Blowing life into rare species; Far from being disaster zones for birds, wind farms across the country are using habitat management plans to help Scotland's wildlife thrive, writes ELLEN ARNISON.

Byline: ELLEN ARNISON

GROUPS opposed to the development of wind farms are quick to suggest that rare and endangered birds risk being killed by the turning turbine blades.

They paint a lurid picture of beautiful birds flying unknowingly into the cruelly sharp rotating edges.

But things have come a long way since the early days when badly positioned turbines, mostly overseas, did have an adverse affect on birdlife.

Now the winds of change have truly blown through the world of renewable energy, bringing improved habitats for Scotland's native fauna and helping rare breed numbers to increase.

Ruth Davis, head of climate change policy at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, said: "The RSPB are passionate about renewable energy, in the right place and with the right rewards, for those who help produce it."

David MacArthur, senior ecologist at Scottish Power, plays a key role in making sure wind farm decisions are the right ones.

He is involved in the development of the power giant's wind farms from the initial site selection right through to operation and, eventually, decommissioning.

David said: "We have a habitat management plan for the operation and construction of each of our sites.

"It's part of ScottishPower's biodiversity and conservation strategy that each site will have the appropriate mitigation and enhancement in place.

"From the very outset, we try to stay away from sites where there will be an unacceptable impact on the environment.

"Once we have identified potential sites, we do thorough surveys from an environmental and ornithological point of view. This has just as much weight as the engineering side of things.

"The view is you'd be better off trying to develop somewhere that's not sensitive. We also consider at this stage what positive conservation management we can do to improve the site."

Ecological information can influence a decision to move away from a site, even if the project is quite far developed.

Recently, the news that a new site in the north-east of Scotland contained an eagle's territory forced a decision to switch to another site.

David and his team will closely monitor the development of a new wind farm, both to ensure pollution regulations are not being breached and to supervise environmental improvements. The improvements will include planting native heath and woodland, and opening water courses.

At the Cruach Mhor site, on Cowal, Argyll, 35 turbines provide power for about 17,000 homes. The habitat management plan has included the planting of more than 4500 native trees.

David added: "This has been an interesting site, because we have hen harriers breeding close to the wind farm. Since the farm opened in 2004, there has been successful breeding.

"As part of our habitat management plan, a mitigation measure was to create an area next to the site where we cleared conifer trees and opened up new habitat that would be attractive for hen harriers.

"It's obviously helping, because they are raising their young there and, importantly, avoiding the turbines.

"The broad aim of the habitat management plan is to create an area out with the wind farm that is relatively more attractive than the wind farm area.

"But in this case, because the heather is still regenerating, there isn't a great deal of difference between the two sites yet - but they still seem to be avoiding the turbines very well.

"Species like these are very agile and manoeuvrable, so they have a high capacity to avoid the turbines."

Cruach Mhor is also home to the threatened black grouse, and the number of breeding males has tripled since the wind farm was completed.

A pair of short-eared owls has been seen in the area and it is hoped the rare species may breed.

Elsewhere, ScottishPower undertook an ambitious project to restore the area at Black Law, Lanarkshire, that had been scarred by opencast mining and commercial forestry.

Central to the plan was clearing about 400 hectares of commercial forestry and restoring it to wet grassland and blanket bog.

As a result, traditional native vegetation such as cotton grass, heather, blueberry and bog cranberry is beginning to thrive.

The vegetation and wet environment has encouraged breeding waders such as northern lapwing and snipe to make themselves at home.

David said: "The habitat management plan at Black Law goes well beyond mitigation work for the effects of the wind farm construction and operation. We were delighted to learn we now have vole and otter using the site. There is also a merlin on the site - a species that wasn't present there previously."

Simon Zisman, the RSPB's Central Scotland conservation officer, said: "Black Law wind farm has taken a badly scarred site and vastly improved it.

"The terrible environmental damage done by opencast mining has been reversed. This will benefit a range of wildlife - notably breeding waders and farmland birds."

The RSPB take a close interest in the development of wind farms and, where they see fit, will make objections. Between 2000 and 2004, they objected to 76 proposed wind farms and raised concerns about a further 129.

At ScottishPower's Beinn an Tuirc site, in Argyll, the most noteworthy resident is a female golden eagle.

Late last year, an adult male golden eagle was spotted in the habitat management area and observers were delighted to see pair bonding activity with the resident female.

ScottishPower have recently taken steps to reintroduce the mountain hare to the area to ensure a steady supply of food for the eagles.

At the Whitelee wind farm on EagleshamMoor, David and his team are keeping a close watch on a much less glamorous species. Veilwort, a nationally scarce plant, was discovered on the site and the habitat management plan has detailed the steps necessary to ensure its survival.

Currently, it is being monitored in order to decide how to best manage the fragile plant, which is thought to be at its northernmost reach in the UK at Whitelee.

Another aspect of the wind farm biodiversity story has been to return vast tracts of lands to blanket bog - the way it would have been without human intervention.

But encouraging the native wildlife to thrive isn't the only benefit of blanket bog - it is also an important carbon sink.

It has a remarkable capacity to absorb and retain atmospheric carbon, and Prince Charles has called it "Britain's tropical rainforests".

David added: "Blanket bog's carbon sink capacity means it has very close ties to what we're trying to do with wind energy.

"It's a huge benefit of felling forests within our habitat maintenance areas and restoring heathland and blanket bog.

"Many people think that removing the trees is harmful to the environment.

"In fact, when we're doing it to create blanket bog, it's the other way round."

So work surrounding wind farms is not only improving conditions for Scotland's rare and endangered native species, but is also restoring the country to its original state - a state that cleans greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

'Black Law wind farm has taken a badly scarred site and vastly improved it. The terrible environmental damage done by opencast mining has been reversed'

CAPTION(S):

GOOD NEWS: For rare breeds such as the golden eagle, hen harrier and black grouse, who have been attracted to environmental improvements in wind farm areas; WINDS OF CHANGE: Main picture, the Cruach Mhor wind farm site, on Cowal, Argyll. Inset left, the area of Black Law, Lanarkshire, scarred by opencast mining and commercial forestry. Inset below left, Scottish Power undertook an ambitious project to restore the latter to its former glory. Now its lush vegetation and wet environment is encouraging wildlife such as otters and voles; SUPPS PIX f15 sus eagle
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)
Date:Oct 15, 2008
Words:1277
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