Two years ago, a petition demanding greater protection for Scotland's mountains, moorland, rugged coasts, woods and glens was handed into the Scottish Parliament.
Although it was backed by more than 3500 people, only yesterday did MSPs get around to debating it. This reflects the dichotomy between protecting the natural environment and allowing development, particularly of wind farms, that could also have an environmental benefit by producing green energy.
Despoliation of wild land is the issue facing Highland councillors who have to decide whether to object to a controversial wind farm in the Monadhliath mountains near Loch Ness. Because their objections would trigger a public inquiry (and go against the advice of officials) they are prepared to undertake a strenuous climb. This illustrates the dilemma for councillors across Scotland lobbied by environmentalists and developers.
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Conservation charity the John Muir Trust wants a new national landscape designation to protect the best remaining wilderness areas. Scotland's Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse is not persuaded by the case for an additional category.
Since their original petition was presented, it has become a matter of urgency as land once seen as too remote for any development is increasingly sought after for wind farms. Scottish Natural Heritage records show that, while 41% of Scotland was unaffected by visual intrusion of built development, by 2009 this had reduced to 28%. The current situation is unknown. That makes the Petitions Committee's decision to ask Scottish Natural Heritage to report on the progress of its wild land mapping exercise an important step towards agreement over what constitutes wild land and where it is.
Unless a designation has clear conditions attached, however, it risks adding to bureaucracy without achieving the desired effect. Environmental designations, backed by EU regulations, usually to protect particular species or habitat, have too often been disregarded when a powerful developer is able to convince the planning authorities – or Government ministers – that the potential benefit, particularly employment, outweighs the damage. The best-known example is the golf course built by the Trump Organisation on the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire, despite part of the sand dunes designated as a site of special scientific interest.
If protocols and environmental assessments can be set aside in the interests of social and economic benefits, how effective will a wild land designation prove? The pressure on wild land has never been greater.
All planning applications must be decided on their individual merits but the piecemeal nature of wind farm development over large tracts of previously unspoilt or wild land, often blighting scenic views, has highlighted the lack of a national policy in relation to the rush of planning applications for wind farms. A national register of wild land should be part of an objective set of criteria. The Year of Natural Scotland will be meaningless if the importance of wild places in providing habitat, scenic landscape, recreation and attracting tourism is ignored.