The wild, as a concept, has long had us seduced – and never, it feels, more so than now. There is a fantasy Scotland, wild and untouched – and under threat now from, amongst other things, giant wind turbines.
Recently the National Trust for Scotland objected to the fact that not enough is being done to protect “wild land” from wind farm developments.
Philip Long, its chief executive, said: “It is now more imperative than ever that efforts to conserve and protect our wild land are given priority. Government policies such as the National Planning Framework 4... should work to support rather than undermine these efforts. We recognise the need to develop sources of renewable energy, but these shouldn’t be to the detriment of our natural assets.”
We have to be careful when concepts like wild are used to drive an objection to something – for the world is really about a human experience, rather than an aspect of nature (another problematic word). It is a word that is everywhere these days and we have to ask whether it is helpful.
“Wild land” it turns out has been defined in both NatureScot’s 2014 paper, which mapped this “natural asset” and recently by the Natural Trust for Scotland, whose website explains, “Wild land is an area of land where natural processes predominate, and where both humans and nature can enjoy tranquil and undisturbed surroundings. Scotland’s wild land is one of our country’s finest assets.”
What’s clear, looking at NatureScot’s description is that wild is about a human feeling. These are landscapes that have a “high degree of perceived naturalness” and “lack of modern human artefacts or structures”. Perceptual responses to the landscape are also listed: “a sense of sanctuary or solitude; risk or, for some visitors, a sense of awe or anxiety; perceptions that the landscape has arresting or inspiring qualities; and fulfilment from the physical challenge required to penetrate into these places.”
If we’re going to protect the life of this planet we need to examine when those feelings are relevant and when they are not.
It says something that we live in a country that is, according to a 2021 RSPB report, amongst the world’s most nature-depleted, and yet we seek to sell its wilderness to tourists.
What we are selling, often, is not biodiversity, but is a feeling of emptiness and human absence – one easily dispelled by the sight of a wind turbine or line of pylons. We need to distinguish between when it is that feeling that is in peril, and nature and biodiversity itself.
We need to remember too that none of our landscape is entirely wild – and even the Natural Trust for Scotland acknowledge this. It has already been impacted by millennia of our presence. Wind farms are a very new and visible manifestation of this impact.
While I have some sympathy with those who complain about windfarm noise, or impact on wildlife, I have little for those whose motivation is the “scenery” or the “tourism market”.
Visual impact is one of the most frequent complaints about windfarms – yet, the way we see a wind turbine, and the way we see the bare hills of Scotland, are both highly impacted by how our culture has brought us up to look at them. They are often defined by those who own them. Can we trust our own eyes?
Wind turbines do, of course, have some impact on wildlife, and it is important we take this into account. Risks to birds include death through collision or interaction with the blades, direct habitat loss and displacement. Land use change is also one of the prime drivers of biodiversity loss. Hence, there are undoubtedly areas that would be best not disturbed by wind farm infrastructure but the wild land concept isn’t necessarily the most useful in terms of defining them.
It’s also worth remembering that what does the most damage is often the things we don’t see. We now know that our over-production of an invisible gas, carbon dioxide, is what is heating the planet. None of us see that gas rising. It makes no mark on any landscape, as a windfarm does.
Energy production is about weighing things up, balancing one impact against another. This doesn’t make for easy answers. If we solve the climate crisis, but do not address the biodiversity crisis, then we fail. But if we don’t go all out to address the climate crisis in the name of protecting the wild, we fail too.
Meanwhile, one of the problems we face is that every energy source has an impact - even those we enlist to save us from the climate crisis.
That’s why insulation, energy efficiency and reduction of consumption should be the bigger message. If there’s any answer, for “the wild”, it’s that.
CREDIT: Vicky Allan