A decision by Scottish Ministers to grant planning permission for a wind farm on the habitat of an endangered species is to be challenged in a judicial review.

Wildcat Haven has raised almost £250,000 through donations in four years, which is how it is funding the legal fight. Its petition to save the Clashindarroch Forest in Aberdeenshire for wildcats has racked up over one million signatures.

An application for a wind farm on the site was made by Swedish company Vattenfall Wind Power Limited in 2019, which is currently under investigation by Aberdeenshire Council, and was granted in June 2023.

Over the course of three and a half years, there were objections from several parties, including Wildcat Haven and Aberdeenshire Council.

Clashindarroch Forest, near Huntly, is a vital habitat for the Scottish wildcat, one of the most endangered animals in the world

There are an estimated 35 wildcats left in the world, according to Wildcat Haven, who said a third of the population is believed to live in Clashindarroch Forest.

“This application sets a very dangerous precedent for wildlife conservation in Scotland. If you can’t protect the most important population of wildcats then what on earth can you protect?" says Dr Paul O’Donoghue, Director of Wildcat Haven.

The decision is being challenged at the judicial review in the hope of being overturned on the basis of the Scottish Government's National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4), which was published a few months before the decision to grant permission for the wind farm in the forest.

Wildcat Haven interprets the decision as a contradiction to NPF4, which refers to Scotland’s “nature crisis”. 

Part One of the planning framework refers to a “need to respond to a growing nature crisis” as well as the “loss of biodiversity”.

The framework is also about planning for more renewable energy usage and tackling the climate crisis.

Read more: Scottish Wildcats: Kittens bred in captivity released in national park 

“There are so many open hills in Scotland that wind farms could go on, why chop down the most important site in the country for Scottish wildcats?

“How is this being allowed to happen? Why are ministers, who are constantly talking about the biodiversity crisis, signing this off? It just seems complete and utter greenwashing. 

“Evidence presented at the public inquiry showed that wild cat kittens can be killed and adults displaced during the construction phase. It is astonishing that despite this, Scottish Ministers have signed the development off. If this isn’t stopped, they will have wildcat blood on their hands," Dr O'Donoghue told The Herald. 

But whilst the references to protection of biodiversity is viewed by Wildcat Haven as a clear reason against the wind farm being built, it was used by the Scottish Ministers as a reason for its approval, since it also concerns climate.

Emails seen by The Herald from the Scottish Government’s Planning and Environmental Appeals Division (DPEA) sent to parties objecting to the wind farm were informed in December 2022 that there would be a second public hearing in Spring 2023. 

In the email, the DPEA states that an appeal made by Vattenfall was being considered by Scottish Ministers.

Wildcat Haven believes this suggests the wind development company knew something they did not - that the Scottish government planning appeal reporter assigned to the case, Elspeth Cook, had initially recommended after the first hearing that the wind farm be rejected. 

This fact was only revealed to Wildcat Haven and the rest of the objectors in June 2023, when the final decision was granted in favour of Vattenfall and the full report published.

The reporter also commissioned the second hearing in light of the introduction of the NPF4 framework.

“NPF4 is supposed to tackle the climate and nature crisis. So it actually elevated the crises of nature and biodiversity to the same status as the climate emergency, so that that should give an added weight to protecting species like the wildcat. It should reinforce the reasons for refusal, but instead has been used to reverse the decision,” the Director of Wildcat Haven told The Herald. 

Read more: Key threats to critically endangered Scottish wildcats revealed

Vattenfall is currently under investigation by Aberdeenshire Council after Wildcat Haven submitted them photos and videos of diggers and tree felling going on at Clashindarroch Forest, alleging the Swedish company had violated its terms by commencing development before plans had been put in place to protect the wildcat habitat. 

The wind farm company strongly refutes these allegations and says it worked with NatureScot and the Saving Wildcats organisation during the planning application process. 

An Aberdeenshire Council spokesperson said: “We can confirm we have received information alleging a breach of planning control. A case has been logged by our planning enforcement team for further investigation to determine if a breach has occurred requiring any further action. We cannot comment further on the content of active investigations.”

A Vattenfall spokesperson said: “The claims that have been made by Wildcat Haven are completely false. Clashindarroch is a commercial forest, and landowner Forestry and Land Scotland have confirmed they are undertaking work as part of their normal land management. Vattenfall is not undertaking any tree felling, nor is there any felling linked to wind farms taking place. 
“We design our wind farms to reduce carbon emissions whilst protecting wildlife at the same time. Our wind farm at Clashindarroch has already been generating electricity for over 8 years with no negative impact on the wildcat population and we have recently completed peat bog restoration as well as tree planting to provide further cover for the wildcats to hunt and roam.”  

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Scottish Ministers have been served a petition for judicial review. As the legal process is ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment further at this stage.”