MINISTERS will decide if a controversial wind farm planned near Loch Ness goes ahead after Highland councillors voted not to object to it, which would have triggered a public inquiry.

Energy giant SSE is planning to erect 67 turbines at a site in the Monadhliath Mountains between the A9 and Loch Ness.

Highland Council's planning committee ignored calls from the Mountaineering Council of Scotland and the wild land charity, the John Muir Trust (JMT), who wanted them to make a stand against the development.

Scottish Natural Heritage is also against the plan because of the impact on wild land and the wider landscape. The site is close to Cairngorms National Park's boundary and its authority has objected.

But the planning committee voted by 11 votes to three not to object, as recommended by officials, on condition the application was reduced from 83 to 67 turbines. SSE accepted the reduction. Councillors laid down a series of other conditions they recommend ministers insist on before granting SSE planning permission for the development at Stronelairg on the Garrogie Estate.

However, JMT said ministers should still call a public inquiry despite the vote and warned one of Scotland's core areas of wild land could "disappear under a forest of steel turbines the height of the Forth Bridge, spread across an area of peatland the size of a small city".

The councillors visited the site close to SSE's giant Glendoe hydro scheme.

SSE argued the presence of the hydro scheme with its kilometre long dam and 40km of existing tracks meant the site does not constitute wild land.

Margaret Davidson, independent councillor for Aird and Loch Ness who led the move not to object, agreed.

She said: "That sort of landscape breaks my heart. There isn't a tree in sight, they have long gone. It has been hammered. It is a sporting estate. It is full of grouse butts, access tracks. Is that wild land? I think that is debatable. If we don't put wind farms in places like Stronelairg, where will we have them?"

Ms Davidson claimed the big issue was roads. She said there would be six or seven lorries just to transport the blades of each turbine, adding: "The impact of traffic running through Fort Augustus village is going to be enormous."

She said it was vital one of the conditions was the road up to the entrance of the Glendoe hydro scheme was made twin track, with a foot/cycle path.

Helen McDade, JMT's head of policy, said: "We are disappointed the majority of councillors chose to ignore expert opinion from bodies which include Scottish Natural Heritage, the Cairngorms National Park, the Mountaineering Council of Scotland and the John Muir Trust. Despite this, the fight to save the Monadhliath Mountains will continue.

"Reports this week have suggested the Scottish Government is open to wild land protection. Once we industrialise any area of wild land, it is gone forever. "