'I think the vast majority of the people in the village are opposed'
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The turbines have yet to rise above Limekiln Forest but already the landscape has undergone a transformation. Chopped-down trees are stacked up neatly beside the newly created access road, a long and winding stony track slicing its way through peaty ground. A huge area is being levelled to accommodate a substation. At a nearby borrow pit, where once there were tall conifers there is now a deep, quarry-like gap underneath 30ft cliffs with a crane, a digger and two stone-crushing machines standing by. This is just a passing glimpse at some of the preparatory work required before the turbine components can take their place in the landscape and start generating renewable energy.
I had joined Jillian Bundy and her husband Martin for an evening walk through part of the Limekiln core path network and along a section of the access road. Jillian is chairperson of Caithness West Community Council and has been one of the leading voices against the wind farm and its proposed extension. Infinergy and Boralex already have permission for 21 turbines at the site, immediately to the south of Reay, and want to add five more – all of which will be 149.9m high if their latest plans are approved. They are also seeking to increase the operational period from 25 to 40 years.
As the Bundys' energetic Weimaraner dogs, Willow and Macy, went bounding off ahead, Jillian outlined some of the objectors' concerns. The western edges of the wind farm site border East Halladale Flows, classified as Scotland's Wild Land Area 39 because of "its vast acres of peat". Peat is recognised as a valuable natural carbon store, and Jillian feels "instinctively" that it is wrong to be disturbing so much of the stuff. Indeed, that same week, the partnership pushing for the Flow Country to be recognised as the world’s first peatland world heritage site announced it was hoping to make a presentation at the COP26 climate change conference.
“The developers would claim that they will turn things back the way they were," Jillian said after I had taken a couple of photos of her standing against a long embankment of exposed peaty soil sloping down to the access road from well above her head height.
“They’re backfilling in some of the peat that has been dug up. They’ll replant some of the trees. But it is never going to account for the huge amounts of peat that have been dug up.
"Digging up peat is instinctively bad – it doesn’t feel right. And we’ve heard that some of the turbines elsewhere in Caithness may be sinking because the foundations are on peat.”
The Bundys acknowledge that Limekiln is a "reasonably tidy" site and that staff from RJ McLeod, the contractor for the access road, have been “polite, very helpful.... no issues whatsoever”. At a gate leading into the forest, there is an information board and walkers can pick up a laminated guide to the core path on which a map of the forest and a series of safety instructions are given equivalent space. Safety measures even extend to having a hand-sanitiser dispenser attached to a wooden post.
Nevertheless Jillian is unhappy with the impact on walking routes in the area, especially if the extension goes ahead. "Clearly our view will be dominated by wind farms," she said. "But it’s more than that – it’s the actual residential amenity, it’s the area where people walk.
“The Limekiln extension won’t affect me personally view-wise at all. The extension will head more towards Shebster. My objection to that is the five turbines there are going into Broubster Forest, so it’s starting to impact yet another area of forest that is residential amenity for local people. Local people use these forests to cycle and walk. Broubster is popular for horse-riding as well.
“So it’s not just the view – it’s constant erosion of where we can walk without actually having intimidating wind turbines.”
There was an outcry last November when it was suggested walkers could be banned from the 7.8km core path for two years during construction. The request was turned down unanimously by Highland Council's economy and infrastructure committee, with Caithness councillor Nicola Sinclair arguing that it would have set a dangerous precedent to allow developers to "ride roughshod" over public opinion and access rights.
“That really was a big issue for us because this is a key area where a lot of people do walk," Jillian said. "We felt it was a very lazy approach to just try and close it for two years.
"Councillors Matthew Reiss and Nicola Sinclair presented the case to the committee and the committee agreed. That was why they had to have a security hut and security guy to keep an eye on who was coming in.”
Infinergy said recently that when the wind farm is operational "the new internal access tracks will become available to the general public, improving the recreational value of Limekiln by creating miles of additional routes".
Responding to Mrs Bundy's concerns over peat, the company pointed out that the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) had concluded that “deep peat is not a significant issue at the site” and that one of the pre-construction requirements is a peat management plan which SEPA must sign off. Infinergy calculates that the carbon payback for the proposed development will be around two years or less, adding that had the original scheme been consented in 2013 "it could have by now conservatively saved approximately 416,000 tonnes of CO2”.
Back outside the Bundys' house on the edge of Reay, while Martin went off to feed the hungry dogs, I asked Jillian about the strength of feeling within the community and whether there was any local support for the wind farm.
“There are one or two people who I would say have been in favour of the development – for example landowners who are being paid for their land to be accessed, and perhaps one or two local contractors who think there might be some work," she said. "That’s fair enough. There may be some people who don’t mind.
“But I think the vast majority of the people in the village are opposed. That is confirmed by the fact that a 1000-signature petition went to the Scottish Parliament for Limekiln 2 [the consented scheme].
“It’s not necessarily Nimbyism. I was very involved with the Spittal Hill wind farm – purely because it was another one that was very much in the wrong place, it was on top of a hill. Fortunately it was turned down. And I objected to Golticlay as well, for different reasons – the impact on habitats there. Again it is the wrong place."
Making a comparison with the proposed Strathy Wood wind farm in north Sutherland, Jillian said: “I can understand why people in Strathy are reasonably happy with it. Somebody there said ‘there are thousands of wild acres that are not fit for agricultural land or even sheep grazing, so if we can make some use of these wild acres then we may as well’.
“I can partly see where they’re coming from. But at Strathy they’re five miles away from the village. And there’s a big difference between five miles away from the village and two-and-a-half kilometres.”
Jillian highlighted an election campaign comment from the Scottish Greens' lead candidate for the Highlands and Islands, Ariane Burgess, who declared that any further onshore wind developments in Caithness must be of the right scale and "should only go ahead with the full support of local people".
Jillian noted: “If even the Greens are saying Caithness has too many… I can say no better than them.
“It’s the democracy thing. I think it was Nicola Sturgeon who said ‘power doesn’t rest with politicians, it rests with the people’.”
Jillian allowed that thought to hang in the evening air for a few seconds before adding, pointedly: “Does it?”
Drone footage by Martin Bundy (mid-April 2021) showing access road construction in progress at the Limekiln wind farm site