The birth of a windfarm

Blawhorn Moss NNR

Amee Hood, a former member of the Stirling NNR team and now working for SNH in Southern Scotland makes a very welcome guest appearance to write about an aspect of Blawhorn Moss:

Blawhorn Moss NNR has to be one of my favourite reserves, possibly because it is a hidden gem within my local authority of West Lothian. It is the only NNR in the Lothians and has huge potential for educational use.

For many NNRs the landscape which surrounds the reserve can be breathtaking: they could be surrounded by ancient woodlands, the Firth of Forth, the boundary fault from the lowlands to the highlands or the sea of the Hebrides but on the other hand, some can be a tad different.

At Blawhorn Moss the wind turbines on the northern side of the reserve (part of the Burnhead windfarm) have become a feature of the surrounding landscape. They are placed roughly 150m away from the boundary and have a blade height tip of 127 m. I have always wondered what was put in place to make sure there was no likely significant effect on the NNR but never fully understood the process, until now.

Since returning to Southern Scotland I became the site lead for a wind farm development which is adjacent and in some areas over laps with a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) feature as blanket bog. It was a very steep learning curve as it was my first Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) which I had to respond to. The Stirling NNR team were on the hunt for blog ideas, so I thought a good blog post could be explaining how Burnhead wind farm next to Blawhorn came about so here is my outline of the process.

Discussions between the developer and consultation bodies (SNH, SEPA, FLS, HES, Local Authority etc.) start long before a planning application goes in. This is a very important time as having early and ongoing discussions can provide scope for direction, such as avoiding sensitivities through layout or identifying enhancement opportunities.

The discussions started late 2009 early 2010 with the developer informing SNH of their feasibility study, confirming methodologies. The main point that was stressed from SNH was the proposal is adjacent to Blawhorn Moss NNR therefore it was in our view, this proposal was likely to have a significant effect on the qualifying interests of the site Special Area of Conservation (SAC) feature raised bog.

May 2010 the scoping report was submitted to the competent authority (Falkirk Council), it outlined the approach the developer proposed to adopt in order to ensure that a robust environmental assessment was undertaken that conforms to the requirements of the EIA Regulations. From there the report was used for consultation internally with the statutory consultees to provide information for a formal scoping opinion to be issued. It outlined key chapters that SNH would comment on for example (Ecology, Landscape and Visual & Hydrology, geology and soils).

June 2010 SNH issued their response to Falkirk Council on their thoughts of the report, focusing on the likely significant environmental issues and impacts. Whilst the report adequately identified main issues in making sure there was no connectivity which would affect the SAC feature of raised bog there were still some other important concerns that were addressed. The location of the proposal was within SNH Strategic Locational Guidance (SLG) which meant the natural heritage interest underpinning the sensitivity rating include an Area of Great Landscape Value & RSPB bird sensitivity area. The proposal was also situated immediately adjacent to an area identified as Zone 3 of the SLG, high natural heritage sensitivity which was due to the designations covering Blawhorn Moss. The NNR promotes public access and provides interpretation and informal facilities there so the potential impact of this development on the experience of visitors to the NNR is an important consideration which was recommended to include within a list of viewpoints when carrying out their Landscape and Visual chapter within their EIA report. There was of course comments around the potential hydrology works, ornithology, protected species and ecology survey which we’d expect to be covered within the EIA report that SNH would respond to.

December 2010 the developer submitted their EIA report to Falkirk Council which contained many chapters covering key reports. SNH’s response was issued in February 2011 where our position statement view was that it was unlikely that the proposal would have a significant effect on any qualifying interest of Blawhorn Moss SAC (raised bog). Noting that even though the turbines would cause significant landscape impacts on the local landscape and the visitor experience to the NNR. We were unable to object on these grounds as our main interest was focused on the connectivity this development would have on the moss, although made reference to have discussions around layout to minimise landscape impact on the NNR.

As I continued to read through historic files I wasn’t expecting what I was about to discover.

November 2011 Falkirk Council had refused planning application on the ground of the reasons given;

1. It is considered that the proposed development would have a major adverse visual impact on the landscape character of the site and of the surrounding area, contrary to Policy ST21 – Wind Energy of the Falkirk Council Local Plan.

2. The existing road network infrastructure is unsuitable for the required equipment and structures to be brought to the site and is unsuitable to allow for future maintenance of the proposed development to be undertaken.

Now whilst SNH did not object as we concluded it is unlikely that the proposal will have a significant effect on any qualifying interest of Blawhorn Moss SAC (raised bog), it was interesting to read around the issues of the visual impacts this would have to the local landscape. But how could this be, the wind farm is up and running. What happened next?

June 2012 the developer had appealed against Falkirk Council decision, where a reporter was commissioned from the Scottish Ministers who carried out an assessment of their own. Their overall conclusion is that the proposed wind farm would not have an unacceptable visual impact on the character and general amenity of the landscape in this area, including the wider area of the Blackridge Heights Area of Great Landscape Value, and taking account of other existing and approved wind farms in the wider area”.

Reading any document can draw you away for hours to understand the nitty gritty but my main aim of this blog post was to find out what was the impact this had to the reserve, if any?

So what we know so far was that the development had no impact on the SAC feature of Blawhorn Moss (raised bog), which was our main concern but there was a concern around the visual impact the turbines would have for visitor engagement. I briefly read the reporters report around Blawhorn Moss and it was interesting to read that it was described that the proposed wind farm would form a prominent feature in views from the Blawhorn Moss board walk. It sure does, wouldn’t disagree there!

Then I continued to read about the conditions and recommendations the reporter had made, which educated me further. I knew developments gift money into helping the local community but another condition the developer had to agree to was in contributing funds into the NNR which would contributed towards improvements to the recreations amenity. (At Blawhorn this went towards enlarging and improving the car park, filling pot holes on the access track, putting non-slip strips on the boardwalk and a contribution to getting a report compiled on developing a path network around Blawhorn and Blackridge.)

Years in the pipe line and eventually Burnhead wind farm officially opened in September 2016.

So that is the history around the most prominent landscape feature of Blawhorn Moss. We got there in the end! What I do wonder now is what would of happened if this development was in the planning system just now? Wind turbines are getting bigger, the majority of turbines in Southern Scotland are roughly 180m +, these turbines are substantially lower. Could the landscape on the boardwalk become even more striking in the years to come if they were upgraded? Who knows but what I also found out that you can see these turbines from Stirling Castle.

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