Windfarm Cutting

Heather cutting at Blackcraig, near Balmaclellan
Heather cutting at Blackcraig, near Balmaclellan

Pushing on with the lek reconnaissance for 2014, I visited Blackcraig this afternoon; soon to be the home of Galloway’s most controversial wind farm. There are black grouse on this long heathery ridge which runs Northeast from Balmaclellan, but as with so many other areas to the East of the Glenkens, the numbers simply aren’t there.

I have yet to see a wind farm project which actually helped black grouse, and the best that I can offer in terms of sites that I have actually seen in person resulted in a slight loss of birds, rather than a more serious loss. Unfortunately, the kind of habitat that black grouse prefer is now being buried beneath applications for wind development, and having been forced to live with commercial forestry, the birds now have to face turbines. Developers are always very keen to say that turbines make no difference to moorland ecology, pointing to the fact that red grouse appear to be more or less compatible with wind farms.

There are many positive side effects of wind development, such as the removal of forestry and the advent of improved access for keepers, but early studies into the effects of turbines on black grouse reveal that the two just don’t work together. On the whole, this is a bit of a grey area and very little research has been done on it. A review is currently underway by SNH, but it is interesting that we know so little about how black grouse react to wind turbines when the species is a key concern for developers. We have had wind farms in this country for long enough now that if black grouse and wind farms were compatible, there would be a huge amount of turbine-funded press to trumpet it, and there is a deafening silence in its absence.

That said, nothing can ever be worse for the birds than ploughing and planting, and there is an irony to the whining tones of turbine objectors who want to preserve a “pristine wilderness” which was devastated beyond all recognition by the foresters half a century ago.

Blackcraig is a stunning spot, and I have always been tempted by the sight of heather cutting which is visible from the road between Corsock and Balmaclellan. Under RSPB supervision, work has been carried out on the hill, which is essentially a step in the right direction. However, there are some great swathes of heather (much of which has been badly beetled and frosted in the past few years) which are ideally suited to burning, and it is difficult to see why cutting has been chosen instead. The proximity of nearby forestry is certainly a factor, and nobody wants to burn right up to the spruces, but there are extensive areas of this hill which would be ripe for management by fire, as well as a combination of fire and cutting.

Such is the artificial controversy around burning that, in general, much of the advice handed out to farmers and managers usually avoids it altogether. There is often a political bent to this as well. If the RSPB pay for a cutter to spend a few days up on the hill, the work belongs to them. Any improvement in the grouse can be directly attributed to their work, and they take neat ownership of the situation. Think about burning and you have to involve several people on the ground, including the farmer, and the impact (or subsequent credit) of the job is diluted. I have seen a few different situations in Wales and in the North West where conservation is deliberately taken away from being a farm activity, and special machines are brought in to be operated by third party contractors while the farmer sits on his own tractor with his own topper and looks on with a confused expression on his face.

On one hand it is easier to bring in a contractor and not involve the farmer or his machinery, but this is the thin end of the wedge which ultimately leads to a situation like that in North Wales where nobody does anything themselves in the certain knowledge that, if it needs doing, some NGO will do it for them. The official thinking behind using contractors is that farmers are busy and might not have time to do the work when other jobs are looming, but if they were properly hooked in to the relevant grants and heather management schemes, it would pay them as well as any other job around the farm. Disengage farmers and land managers from conservation and the whole process becomes a grotesque black hole for public funding. I don’t know whether or not this is what happened at Blackcraig, but it is a depressingly common situation elsewhere.

There are always some advantages to cutting, including the fact that you don’t have to wait for a dry day in order to get started, which in Galloway is a premium. While some estates in the East have been burning for days, there has only been one day so far this Spring when it might have been possible to burn in Galloway, and even that would have been an uphill struggle. It will dry and there will be a few days to burn in early April as usual, but several weeks of cutting during the rain would really help to get the ground covered so that the burning window can be used to the fullest. At Blackcraig, it seems like this combination of cutting and burning has been dropped in favour of cutting alone. I worry that this is more about politics than logistics, as if often the case on marginal ground elsewhere. When the wind turbines go up on Blackcraig, there really will be legitimate concerns about burning heather, but given that the work is not scheduled to start until 2018, the total reliance on cutting seems a little pointed.

For all that, the ground was in pretty good nick. Some of the cuts had been horribly overgrazed and others had been put into heather that was too old and was struggling to regenerate, but elsewhere the balance was just right and the mixture of heights and ages of heather was spot on. I failed to see a single sign of any grouse, and was content with some high-flying views back to the Chayne amidst squabbling larks and pipits. It will certainly be a spot to revisit as the Spring comes on.

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