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17 Aug 2017

Courting protection for our seabirds

A view of a dramatic coastline, with tall cliffs on the right dropping down into the blue sea on the left. White waves crash around rocks near the shore.
St Abb’s Head National Nature Reserve
Charities are challenging decisions on windfarms. Stuart Brooks, the Trust’s Head of Natural Heritage Policy, looks at the reasons why.

Last year the National Trust for Scotland voiced its concern about an offshore windfarm development [1], consented by Scottish Ministers, in the Firths of Forth and Tay that is predicted to kill thousands of seabirds every year.

At the time we made the point that windfarms play a vital role in shifting our energy production away from fossil fuels to help ameliorate the impacts of climate change, and offshore developments are of added benefit being more efficient and with less visual landscape intrusion. However, they needed to be sited to avoid damaging impacts on wildlife. Our position hasn’t changed but there have been some worrying developments linked to the legal challenge that RSPB is making through the courts.

Media commentary over the last few days has focused on RSPB’s legitimacy in challenging the Scottish Government’s decision to consent to this scheme. This is troubling on a number of fronts.

Firstly, the estimated impacts on some internationally protected areas – including the death of 1,169 gannets and 1,251 puffins every year for the 20-year operation of the scheme – are based on the government’s own assessment. An editorial in the Times brought these figures into question by suggesting that the British Trust for Ornithology had undertaken a survey and was predicting a much lower mortality rate. The BTO has subsequently confirmed they have not undertaken any survey work in association with the development.

The Trust property at St Abb’s Head is predicted to be affected by these windfarms, with populations of kittiwakes and razorbills falling by 28% and 22% respectively as a result of the additional mortality. Kittiwakes are already under severe pressure and are declining rapidly. RSPB is fully justified to challenge this development which poses such a huge additional risk to our already beleaguered seabird populations.

Secondly, RSPB initiated this action because they had no other option open to them. Scottish Ministers have the power to consent schemes such as this without prior public scrutiny through a Public Local Inquiry. This was also the case for the Stronelairg windfarm – contested through the courts by the John Muir Trust. No NGO is going to go down this road willingly, given the potential costs, limitations and track record of the Scottish Courts on environmental matters. RSPB were exercising their legal right as well as their charitable purpose. They should be commended for their actions and for seeking final resolution at the Supreme Court.

Finally, this action by RSPB is shining a spotlight on the bigger picture, beyond the technical legal arguments and media bluster. Our wildlife continues to be threatened by industrial scale development – on land and at sea.

UN Sustainable Development Goals and international treaties for biodiversity recognise that development is necessary for human wellbeing, but we also need to put in place adequate mechanisms to protect our environment and the wildlife that depends on it. Protected areas are only as good as the decisions that uphold them. If developers and governments undermine the integrity of protected areas, charities currently have no other option open to them but to exercise their rights, on behalf of their members, the public and in this instance the seabirds, through the less than ideal legal system.

[1] Inch Cape, Neart na Gaoithe and Seagreen Alpha and Bravo marine wind farm projects