A PUBLIC inquiry into controversial proposals to build a £100 million wind farm in the Highlands has been partly delayed sparking a row between campaigners and a major developer.
An independent Reporter appointed by the Scottish Government postponed a hearing on how the development would impact on birdlife until June because of a procedural matter.
RSPB Scotland, which has objected to the 39-turbine development at Strathy South in the Flow Country of Sutherland, accused Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) of causing the delay by changing paperwork.
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However, the energy company hit back saying the issue was not their fault and that documents had been lodged in sufficient time for the inquiry to go ahead.
The row is the latest in a long-running battle over the future of the site, which could become a Unesco World Heritage Site as one of the largest and most intact areas of blanket bog in the world.
More than 200 letters of objection have been received, with environmental concerns over the impact on birds such as the hen harrier, golden eagle, wood sandpiper, red-throated diver and greenshank.
However, there has been support from two of the three local community councils because of the employment potential and SSE argue the wind farm would be built on an area already badly damaged by commercial forestry plantation and, as a consequence, would help the restoration of the peatland.
It is also argued that the existing Strathy North wind farm has created jobs and generates more than £4m for the local community.
RSPB Scotland said the delay was down to a last minute change in documentation from SSE over the way they intended to manage the sensitive peatland habitats.
AedÃ¡n Smith, the organisation's head of planning and development, said the "whole approach" to the site by SSE had been "extremely disappointing".
He said: "We first made it clear to SSE over 10 years ago that this was a completely unsuitable site for a wind farm. It is one of the best places for wildlife, not just in Scotland, but anywhere in Europe.
"We continue to urge SSE to concentrate instead on delivering much needed wind power from less damaging sites, but unfortunately SSE have not heeded concerns from others about the damage their development would cause and it seems they have carried this approach into the inquiry.
"While all other parties have done their best to stick to deadlines, SSE have been late for almost every one. This has put the Reporter in a very difficult position and forced this delay, inconveniencing all those involved."
However, an SSE spokeswoman said it was "disappointing" that the RSPB was trying to "mislead" the public over the issue.
She said: "It is unfortunate that due to procedural issues the ornithology session for the public inquiry for Strathy South windfarm has been postponed.
"SSE will continue to engage in all aspects of this process and looks forward to the remaining inquiry sessions this week and the rearranged ornithology session examining the relevant issues objectively.
"SSE is a responsible developer with an established Highland heritage and we have set out to design the Strathy South project to deliver positive environmental gain overall."
Following the decision to delay, the wind farm's impacts on birds will not now be considered until June and the inquiry is instead scheduled to start on Thursday with impacts on peatland habitats only due to be considered.
RSPB Scotland is calling for the peatland session to also be delayed until June to ensure there is sufficient time to consider SSE's new peatland management plans.