Published: 07/10/2014 11:00 - Updated: 06/10/2014 13:59

Enjoying the peace while it's still there

The bothy where Ralph spent a day carrying out repairs.
The bothy where Ralph spent a day carrying out repairs.

THE outside door handle was coming off at the bothy I’m responsible for. So what? you may say. Well, if the handle comes off then the door can’t easily be opened and will be forced. Then it won’t close, and the building is open to the elements and anything else that might prowl around those vast, silent, forestry plantations… There had also been disturbing reports of wind farm contractors living in the bothy and a skylight glass was missing. So another day’s outing to the remote spot was called for.

It’s not my favourite approach to take the direct route, 12 miles straight down the track from Strathy. But with work to do, best get there as quickly as possible. So leaving the car at the beach car park, I set off shortly after eight on the mountain bike on what promised to be a bright but breezy day.

From Strathy East the track soon joins the new road to the Strathy North wind farm. Dalangwell, formerly a remote keeper’s cottage, has been transformed into an industrial estate of portable cabins, big machinery and a huge barn-like building. I don’t suppose the keeper lives there any more. Beyond, the road reverts to a narrower stony track, after another couple of miles entering the original plantation of Strathy Wood.

Some 30 years ago this wood was bought privately by a man with a vision ahead of his time. He planned to progressively fell the alien conifers and replant the whole wood with native trees such as birch, alder, willow and rowan. Moreover, he built his own house in the wood, a large bungalow constructed from local timber. A generator and a tiny wind turbine on a rise above produced his electricity while a big wood-burning stove provided heating. It was a peaceful, isolated place to live, six miles from the public road.

The environmental agencies, the Forestry Commission and the like, were sceptical and sadly in time proved right. Thirty years on, only a small part of the wood has been replanted. The bungalow now lies empty, possessions and rubbish scattered about inside, a dead owl lying by the sink in the kitchen. What happened I do not know, except the proposal to turn the plantation into native woodland was trumped by a much more sinister plan to dump yet another huge wind farm of giant turbines nearly 500 feet tall over the whole of this bit of forest. Red-throated divers, pine martens, otters, hen harriers and owls would just have to go and another bit of wild country would become an industrial eyesore visible for many miles. The application remains with the Scottish Government for consideration.

However, the landscape is already changing. A steady whine had been getting louder as I bumped up the track, on gaining height I could see, just across the river, big machines at work flattening a huge area of more recent plantations to make way for the giant Strathy North wind farm. Those slow-growing and commercially useless trees should never have been planted in the first place on virgin flow country and have proved a Trojan horse in letting a huge industrial development drive in towards the heart of the flows – an area now known to be unique in the world and a huge repository of stored carbon. Maybe that’s one reason the house was abandoned – the owner would be looking straight at the new turbines.

Beyond Strathy Wood the track enters a third area of plantations, the largest of all. Vast swathes of peatland were planted in the 1980s using tax breaks for rich owners and the trees have been growing slowly ever since. There will never be a commercial return but this woodland has become a habitat in its own right, a huge area of dark, remote, whispering pine and spruce. This is the proposed site for the even more intrusive Strathy South wind farm which would be a hammer-blow to the flow country if ever permitted. My bothy, one of the remotest and most peaceful spots in Scotland, would be overshadowed by another giant turbine. If that wind farm is approved I will never go back. But there is more in this forest than the deer and the otters, the hen harriers and the foxes, the red-throated divers and the eagles and the bats in the bothy roof. I quote from an entry in the bothy book, written in June.

"Returning on the second night at dusk we were on the approach to the bothy just after crossing the ford when a very large black cat or panther jumped from one peat bank to the other right across the road about 20 yards in front of the car. We think it was stalking a small deer that we spotted. It was dusk but we clearly saw it. I have never seen anything like it and I would not have believed it if I had not seen it with my own eyes.

"I would estimate it to have been the size of a large black dog but its tail was huge. It must have leapt over 12 feet. We looked carefully for footprints but could not find any. After the sighting we were wary about answering the call of nature after dark but the whole experience was remarkable and really quite unnerving to say the least."

I would estimate the distance between the peat banks across the track as nearer 15 feet. Panthers are alive and breeding in the Strathy forests.

THE bothy needed some attention. I mended the door handle and bodged the skylight as I didn’t want to go up on the roof on my own. Some folk evidently had been living in the place for a while earlier in the year. I moved wooden beds out of one room where they blocked fire exits, I burnt lots of old perishable food before the mice had a feast and shifted out a pile of cardboard boxes. Empty alcohol bottles were collected to take out for recycling. A wooden box concealed an old mouse nest. I swept, removed cobwebs and buried various bits of rubbish. Soup cooked on the fire and a peaceful lunch sitting looking out over what is still one of the quietest landscapes in Scotland was my reward. After four hours there was still work to do but the place looked a lot better and I set off homewards down the track into a now-freshening wind with a few showers.

If wind farms really delivered one might be prepared to sadly accept the negatives associated with them for the sake of the greater good. But they don’t. Currently another awful one, Stroupster, is going up with indecent haste, the power though will have nowhere to go when the wind is blowing hard. The Beauly–Denny line will not be completed until late 2015 at the earliest and has already been fully booked for years. So, as with the Camster and Baillie wind farms, huge compensation payments for not being able to generate will be rolling into the owners, funded of course by our electricity bills. Anyone coming over the hill from John O’Groats and sighting the dereliction that is Stroupster must be prompted to ask – however could we have let this happen?

Well, when one landowner gets permission all the neighbours also want a share of the dosh and so put in their own proposals. I have objected to local schemes. I have been shouted at and cursed to my face. I have had friends of 30 or more years stare stony-faced ahead and ignore me on the roads; I have had criminal acts committed which I can’t mention as I have no proof but were likely connected with planning objections I made. A number of years ago my wife was offered a bribe of a new kitchen if we’d withdraw an objection.

I bear no hard feelings to anyone, I understand well the pressures on landowners. But we must not be browbeaten. We have the right of free speech and if somebody nearby wants to put up some huge monstrosity I don’t care if they are my next-door neighbour or the most powerful landowner in the county or the Queen; I will put in an objection and let our democratically elected councillors decide. So should you.

And in the meantime I’ll do the little I can to improve the environment even if it means taking a whole day to go out and fix a broken door handle.

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