HUGE areas of the Highlands are to be declared "turbine free" in a move designed to halt the march of wind farms across some of Scotland's most beautiful and unspoiled landscapes.

About 28% of the countryside will be designated as wildland on maps being drawn up by Scottish Natural Heritage.

They will be accompanied by Scottish Government planning guidelines advising local authorities wind farms should only be approved in those areas in exceptional circumstances. The move follows disquiet in rural communities over the rapid expansion of wind power, which has carpeted large tracts with turbines – especially in Ayrshire, Dumfries and Galloway, the Borders and Perthshire.

It is understood Scotland's official wildlands will be concentrated in the north and west Highlands, where a number of controversial wind farm applications are under consideration.

The guidelines will be reflected in the Government's Scottish Planning Policy and National Planning Framework, due to be published for consultation later this month.

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the nature conservation agency, stressed a "wildland" designation would not represent an absolute guarantee against wind power development.

Policy manager Brendan Turvey said applications would still be considered case-by-case but added: "Wildland is important and sensitive to wind farms. Wild land means there isn't much there in terms of human artefacts."

A senior Scottish Government source said: "It's fair to say we want to see a balance between onshore renewables developments and protecting Scotland's natural heritage."

The news was welcomed yesterday by the John Muir Trust.

The conservation charity, which owns and protects large areas of countryside, lodged a Holyrood petition two years ago calling for greater protection for wild land.

Chief executive Stuart Brooks said: "We need to find out more detail, but this would be a significant step in the right direction.

"Scotland's wildland is famed across the world, and is an important part of our rich cultural heritage and national identity, yet it has been dis-appearing at an alarming rate in recent years.

"A lot of important groundwork has already been carried out by SNH and the John Muir Trust in mapping Scotland's wild land.

"This mapping work can be the basis for identifying and protecting our best remaining wild land."

A Scottish Government spokesman said: "We believe wind energy – suitably located and subject to a planning process which gives the right level of protection to Scotland's important landscapes – can make a huge contribution to meeting Scotland's future energy needs.

"Alongside planning authorities, SNH, RSPB and others, the Scottish Government will work closely to ensure construction and habitat management of wind farm developments are exemplary and that impacts are minimised.

"We will consult soon on a new draft Scottish Planning Policy and the National Planning Framework main issues report.

"This will allow us to hear a full range of views on how wild land character should be protected by the planning system."