'People versus birds' is a factor in choice of coastal route for pylons
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The choice of route for the proposed 400kv pylon line cutting through Caithness was based partly on the competing needs of communities and wildlife – or "people versus birds".
The issue arose during Monday night's public meeting in Dunbeath village hall. It was called by Dunbeath/Berriedale Community Say NO to Pylons, a subgroup of Berriedale and Dunbeath Community Council, as part of its campaign against the proposed 400kV overhead line between Spittal, Loch Buidhe and Beauly.
One member of the audience asked why the pylons would be following a largely coastal route, close to communities, rather than being positioned inland.
Simon Hall, lead consents and environment manager at SSEN Transmission, pointed to the environmental designations in place in the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland.
"There is never a perfect solution in any project – it is always the best balance of considerations," he said.
"The inland route has a number of constraints over and above those presented by the coastal route which ultimately has led us to our preference towards the coast."
Mr Hall said a central route would be "more mountainous and more remote", while the area around the peatlands would be more difficult to access for construction and maintenance.
"The central area is heavily constrained by a lot of environmental designated areas, a lot of those for nationally and internationally important bird species," he said. "We have to take consideration of those risks as well and we have to balance those against the community impacts and impacts on people.
"We heard it a lot from yourselves and other communities during the [consultation] events last year, it's 'people versus birds', and to a certain degree it absolutely is.
"These areas are protected by law and under our licence we have an obligation to protect flora and fauna and all this kind of stuff as well as trying to minimise the impact of our infrastructure on people."
He said the coastal route had come out as a preference as it offered "a better balance overall" for operational, construction, safety and environmental reasons.
Mr Hall added: "Ultimately that's what we've decided to take forward and we'll be trying to justify through our planning application."
Community council chairman Angus MacInnes, who chaired the public meeting, said the conclusion could be reached that as far as politicians are concerned "the peatland is more important than the people".
One member of the audience wanted to know why the line through Dunbeath and Berriedale could not be installed subsea. Another asked about the environmental impact of constructing the pylons and associated infrastructure, and there was also a request for the SSEN panel to define what exactly net-zero means.