Wind vs. Wilderness: The Uncomfortable Compromises of Conservation

Winter 2023

We don’t have the luxury of black and white anymore; virtually everything we do requires us to operate in a world of grey. Contradictions and compromises are an everyday imperative in our work to Scale Conservation by delivering positive environmental and social impact.

One of the biggest challenges we face is delivering large-scale land use change. The difficult reality for many in the rural economy is in recognising that our collective exploitation of land, for whatever reason, is a big part of why we stand at the threshold of a living hell on Earth, appropriately accompanied by biblical-scale environmental catastrophes now appearing across the globe on a daily basis.

Sadly, however much we all may enjoy our existing way of life, it’s no longer sustainable. And in fact, we’ve wasted the window for sustainability – we left that back in the 1980s alongside awesome music, big hair, and a political doctrine of growth, growth, growth. Actually, ignore that last one. What we need now is regenerative land use change. Doing no harm is no longer good enough; we need to do a lot of good and quickly.

This is where some of the massive changes we need to make are uncomfortable to those who have for so long enjoyed, either financially, emotionally, or culturally, the status quo. You will often hear we need more or even all land for farming, but that has hugely impacted our natural world, wildlife populations, and water bodies – and not for the better. We have heard and continue to hear that we’ve always burnt the hillside and used the ground for sport, but that has left huge scars in the landscape physically and on wildlife populations literally. In many ways, we’re now left with the land we both wanted and deserve.

Recognising this need for systematic change and being absolutely committed to regenerative land management and restoring natural processes, I’m faced with many uncomfortable contradictions of my own. One of the biggest is that whilst I am completely open to exploring the renewable energy potential on our land portfolio, I am acutely aware that we can’t build out these huge (and fundamentally important) infrastructure projects without the very environment I’m committed to protecting.

In the following text, I’m going to explain our thinking, the advantages we see, the threats we recognise, and the compromises we’re prepared to make (and those we aren’t) to realise the potential for renewable energy projects across the Oxygen Conservation portfolio.

We believe that wind power, especially in Scotland, where the environmental, logistical, and political conditions are most supportive, must play a significant role in supporting our mission to Scale Conservation and believe it will do so in several ways:

Renewable Energy Generation: Wind farms produce clean and renewable energy, reducing our reliance on fossil fuels, which is the most significant threat to biodiversity and conservation efforts worldwide. If we cannot help in finding a way to end our reliance on fossil fuels, we will no longer have a future on this planet. I wholeheartedly believe that we owe it to the generations that will follow, to try everything we can to repay the climatic debts we’ve created.

Mobilising Natural Capital Investment: Revenue generated from wind farm operations will form a key part of the financial returns for investors in the natural capital economy. If we can prove that it is possible to generate an investment return by delivering positive environmental and social impact, we will mobilise the trillions of dollars needed to help in the fight against climate change and biodiversity loss.

Funding Conservation Initiatives: Revenue generated from wind farm operations will allow reinvestment in conservation efforts, allowing us to purchase more land for conservation. This funding can also support initiatives such as habitat restoration, species protection (and reintroduction), and the transition to regenerative land management practices.

Job Creation: Wind farms create jobs, both during construction and ongoing operations. Many of the communities where we are hugely fortunate to own and manage land need additional employment if they are to offer a future for young people. These employment opportunities can bolster local economies, helping to create thriving rural communities.

Community Infrastructure: Engaging with local communities and stakeholders is crucial in the development of wind farms. This collaboration can lead to the adoption of community benefit agreements and introduce new accessible infrastructure (especially tracks and walkways), making large areas of land, previously locked away, available again to the many, not just the very few.

When thoughtfully planned and executed, wind farms and similar large-scale infrastructure projects can demonstrate that economic development and conservation can go together, contributing to a better future for both people and nature in this unique and ecologically significant region. We’ve seen first-hand that this is possible if there is a vision and willingness on the part of both the landowner and the developer to collaborate, constructively challenge norms and push boundaries.

It is, however, important to consider the potential environmental impacts of a wind farm, despite its contributions to renewable energy and our wider conservation efforts. Here are some counterarguments highlighting those concerns:

Limited Opportunity: We have a finite amount of land available for anything and choosing to pursue wind power means prioritising that development ahead of other opportunities such as tree planting or peatland restoration, or the wider restoration of natural processes.

The land available for wind is in reality a very small proportion of land based on political, social, logistical, and environmental considerations, so we think it’s appropriate to pursue when it is possible, for all the reasons shared above.

The Compromise: We shouldn’t prioritise more turbines but instead prioritise turbines in the right place. This means we will work to find the balance between the size of individual turbines and the overall size of the wind farm. We are also committed to them being part of a wider site masterplan that includes woodland creation and peatland restoration alongside wind generation – not one or the other. We’re also exploring some innovative ways of achieving this balance including exploring the possibility to plant trees in (traditionally heavily restricted) ‘wind protection zones’, and using our detailed topographic modelling of an estate to design new woodland areas which have a greater diversity of native tree species around development sites.

Habitat Destruction: The construction and maintenance of wind farms, including associated infrastructure, can disrupt local habitats and ecosystems. Roads, transmission lines, and the turbines themselves can fragment and degrade the natural landscape, potentially harming wildlife and plant species that depend on these areas.

The Compromise: Extensive environmental assessments and wildlife surveys help to inform the design and engineering of a wind farm such that we can significantly reduce the impact of habitat destruction and disturbance, albeit of course not completely.

We are not however prepared to commit to specific environmental improvements at a site by planting trees and then later fell those same trees to facilitate wind development. This is why we commit to developing detailed masterplans with developers and woodland creation consultants to ensure we do not find ourselves in this position. If we make a positive impact on the natural world, we’re committed to doing everything we can to protect that.

Impact on Peat Bogs: Some parts of Scottish land contain incredibly valuable peat bogs, which are essential for carbon storage and biodiversity. The construction and operation of wind farms can disrupt these fragile ecosystems, releasing stored carbon and affecting water flow patterns.

The Compromise: The development of a wind farm and peatland restoration both require the use of large-scale plant and machinery, very often in hard-to-reach parts of the landscape. We will always try and minimise the disturbance of peat through site selection and detailed planning. Where we disturb peat in the development of a wind farm, we will seek to use those same access routes and that same equipment to restore the entirety of the peatland area of the landscape, not just that impacted by the wind development.

We are not prepared to touch peatland without a funded commitment to its restoration and ongoing maintenance, and we see wind as a potentially significant source of funding to unlock restoration opportunities for some of the more challenging areas of degraded peatland that would not otherwise be funded through carbon credit schemes or government grants.

Wildlife Collisions: Although sometimes this risk is overstated, it is true that wind turbines can pose a threat to bird and bat populations. Collisions with the rotating blades can result in injuries and fatalities, particularly for species that use the area for breeding, migration, and/or foraging.

The Compromise: Specialist independent bird and bat surveys, alongside wider environment surveys, help to inform precision placement, design, and engineering of a wind farm. Whilst this cannot remove the risk entirely, it can significantly reduce the likelihood of collisions and remove the risk for specific, protected, or vulnerable species.

Whilst I cannot guarantee any specific animal will not be impacted by any wind development we choose to build, that is the reality of almost everything we do. From regenerative agriculture to ecotourism to property development to woodland creation; all of the activities we undertake can and do cause harm both in terms of carbon emissions and nature loss. What we are committed to do is designing landscape level schemes which create much greater positive impacts that outweigh the negative. That’s really all any of us can do.

Noise and Visual Impact: Wind turbines generate noise and can significantly alter the visual aesthetics of (sometimes, although often not when you look closely!) pristine landscapes and ranging horizon lines. This may negatively impact the experience of tourists and local communities alike, potentially affecting the area’s appeal as a conservation destination.

The Compromise: Personally, I like wind farms, I think they add something to the landscape. However, appreciating this isn’t everyone’s perspective, my approach is to offer that the local impact felt by a wind farm on the horizon or even the top of the hill is nothing in comparison to that of a collapsing climate and a completely failing biosphere. We don’t have the luxury of ideal scenarios; we have a series of flawed choices, and the time to make those is reducing rapidly.

Turbine Manufacturing and Maintenance: The production and maintenance of wind turbines involve energy-intensive processes and the use of materials such as rare metals. This can result in a significant environmental footprint far beyond an individual wind farm in geographies many of us will never see.

The Compromise: It’s a question of scale. The impact that fossil fuels have across the globe is beyond individual comprehension and, when considered relatively, the development, operation, and decommissioning of a wind farm offers a fraction of that impact and a huge amount of good in exchange. It’s also helpful to consider that wind farms typically repay their embodied carbon within only a couple of years and continue to provide green energy for many years afterwards.

I’m not prepared to comprise the obligation I feel to try and find a more regenerative way of life and will continue to believe wind and other renewable energy is a key part of that process.

Challenges in Decommissioning: Wind farm decommissioning, which involves the removal and disposal of turbines and infrastructure, will also have environmental impacts, including soil disturbance and waste disposal issues.

The Compromise: I hope that we don’t even consider decommissioning wind farms until we’ve developed a fossil fuel-free future. In that world, we have solved the threat of climate change and found a way of regenerating the world around us. In that world, the challenges of decommissioning a wind farm will be so easily solved that this causes me little to no concern – so much so that I think it’s wasted energy and resources planning for that future.

Contradictions, Compromises & Conclusions

In a world coloured by shades of grey, where contradictions and compromises are the currency of progress, the journey toward Scaling Conservation takes us through a terrain as complex as the challenges we face. Wind energy, with all its potential and pitfalls, stands at the crossroads of transformation.

Our landscapes have been shaped by our choices, both past and present. The pristine wilderness we yearn to protect is no longer untouched, and our climate is in chaos. While the road ahead may be fraught with discomfort and uncertainty, we must keep moving forward, for there is no turning back.

In harnessing the power of the wind, we harness the power of possibility. Wind farms, standing as monuments to our quest for sustainability, offer us the chance to rewrite the narrative of our future. They are the visible symbols of our commitment to a world where the balance between human progress and the preservation of nature is not a contradiction but a compromise.

For in the end, it is not about absolutes or ideals but about finding a path forward, even if it is through the uncertain world of grey. We may not have the luxury of perfection, but we do still have choices…

Rich Stockdale
Managing Director