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Agenda: We need a planning system that protects our glorious wild lands

Ask an outsider to imagine Scotland and, alongside tartan, bagpipes and whisky, you'll hear something about majestic wild landscapes of mountain and loch.

Engraved on the wall of the Scottish Parliament building are quotations from writers and poets who celebrate our wild landscapes and call for their protection.

Visitors give enjoyment of our unspoilt landscapes as the main reason they come here, making tourism one of our largest employers. Three quarters of Scots spend time in our great outdoors each year while one fifth go hillwalking.

Surely the homeland of John Muir would have long since taken steps to protect its mountains and wild places? Sadly, according to official figures, Scotland lost almost one-third of its wild land between 2002 and 2009. The losses continue even though surveys reveal that 91 per cent of Scots support conservation of wild land. When the Scottish Government recently announced a new national planning policy it seemed like a breakthrough.

For the first time, our remaining areas of wild land were officially identified, and the policy stated: "Wild land character is displayed in some of Scotland's remoter upland, mountain and coastal areas, which are very sensitive to any form of intrusive human activity and have little or no capacity to accept new development. Plans should safeguard the character of areas of wild land."

Disappointment at the approval of the massive Stronelairg wind farm in the Monadhliath, and the area's removal from the wild land map, was tempered by the thought that a line had finally been drawn. Landscape campaigners assumed that developments on wild land still at the public inquiry stagewould be rejected. As always, it pays to check the small print. The policy also says: "In areas of wild land, development may be appropriate in some circumstances." Surely not. A defining factor of wild land is "a lack of modern artefacts or structures". A wind farm, with 150-metre-high turbines and many kilometres of HGV tracks plus ancillary buildings, destroys wild-land quality.

On the day the policy was announced, Dutch company Eventus BV submitted an application for the Talla a' Bheithe wind farm on the edge of Rannoch Moor. The site is within the supposedly newly-protected Rannoch-Nevis-Alder wild land area. Rannoch is famed for its vast open space and vistas; it is the backdrop to the views from some of Scotland's most renowned mountains including Schiehallion and the Buachaille Etive Mor.

Rannoch has been celebrated for its wildness in books including Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped. First-time visitors never forget the drive north on the A82, looking out over the vast emptiness. Development here would destroy something precious.

Wild places inspire people to get out and become physically active. There is increasing evidence that outdoor and nature activities benefits mental health too. Our wild land also has huge economic value.

It is, by definition, in the remotest parts of the country, mostly the Highlands. Communities around these areas have many economic disadvantages. Despite the obstacles, the population of the Highlands has been increasing because these remoter places also have strengths. One is their wild lands.

Wild mountain landscapes have made tourism the largest employer in such areas. Visitors are prepared to make an extra effort to visit remoter communities to walk, climb, run, swim and enjoy the emptiness. The planning system must protect these benefits.

Renewable energy is vital but wind farms can be sited in landscapes where human development is already prevalent. Wild land is lost once developed and cannot be recreated elsewhere. If the Rannoch development is approved, or others are on officially identified wild land, a mockery will be made of the new planning policy.

As John Muir said: "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike."

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