A 30-mile stretch of powerline through Dumfries and Galloway would pose a risk to “vulnerable wildlife populations,” according to campaigners, who say their concerns have been underestimated by the project’s developer.
SP Energy Networks (SPEN), owned by Spanish multinational Iberdrola, has submitted proposals to the Scottish Government to replace existing electricity pylons between the villages of Kendoon and Tongland.
The plan would see a new route used, part of which would cross Galloway Forest Park and the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere, awarded a special designation by UNESCO in recognition of its landscapes, wildlife and cultural heritage.
Local residents, politicians and wildlife experts say the lines should be laid underground along a similar route to the old one. They argue that this would reduce the likely negative impacts on wildlife, including rare species such as the nightjar, breeding raptors, golden eagles, black grouse, bats, pine martens and red squirrels.
But SPEN says undergrounding would not be cost effective, adding that as a regulated company, it has “an obligation to deliver efficient and economical projects that minimise the impact on people’s electricity bills”.
Campaign group Galloway without Pylons (GWP) told The Ferret it is “extremely concerned about SPEN’s Environmental Impact Assessment Report”, due to what it believes was an underestimation of the effects on ecology and forestry.
While the presence of rare and sensitive species in the area is acknowledged by SPEN, campaigners dispute the report’s assertion that the potential impacts of the project on them are “not significant”.
GWP campaign coordinator Paul Swift said: “The industrial development proposed by SPEN is not going to result in a trivial disruption to the Galloway Forest Park but an extensive clearance of habitat.”
Swift said the impact assessment commissioned by SPEN “relied heavily on ‘desktop studies’” and “not enough competent fieldwork”.
“The approach taken in assessing the environmental impact of SPEN’s proposal is flawed because of the dependence on short-term assessment of wildlife populations,” he added.
“The result is a poor understanding of the potential impacts on scarce species of conservation concern and a static perception of the landscape.”
The campaigners believe the planned powerline is “inconsistent” with Dumfries and Galloway Council’s Forestry and Woodland Strategy. Swift said: “The goal for conservation is the improvement of habitat, and the increase in vulnerable wildlife populations. SPEN’s proposed industrial development is not consistent with this goal.”
SPEN’s proposals form part of the larger ‘Kendoon-Tongland Reinforcement Project’ which has already begun, but the company needs approval for the next stage.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) Scotland told The Ferret it had “significant concerns about impacts from the final proposed routing of this project”.
RSPB Scotland’s senior conservation officer in the area, Julia Gallagher, said the organisation had been consulted on the project from its early stages and had “highlighted key ornithological sensitivities and restraints across the proposed route” at that point.
Gallagher said concerns include “the potential impact to a number of species, including wintering wildfowl, breeding raptors and nightjars”.
The organisation will be making a formal submission in the coming months.
Evi Landay, a local climate activist who campaigns with Extinction Rebellion Scotland, argues the proposals are in conflict with Dumfries and Galloway Council’s declaration of a climate emergency.
Landay is concerned about the effects on “ordinary wildlife” which she feels were overlooked in the consultancy’s assessment. She said: “You’ve got small farms with a lot of wildlife on their land and these massive pylons are going to cut across them.
“So-called ecology businesses are there to make money. They have a list of endangered species and anything not on that list doesn’t get looked at.”
Equally, she said that by focusing on keeping costs down, SPEN is “basically saying they need to make as big a profit as possible”. “They say it’s about keeping people’s electricity bills down, but they don’t care about that. They care about getting a bigger bonus for the guys in charge,” she added.
SPEN conducted a feasibility study into undergrounding on the instruction of the Scottish Government which was published in August this year. The study said that underground cables could result in additional costs for each section of the line of between £8.62m and £95.96m.
The Scottish Greens has set up its own campaign, ‘Protect the Galloway Glens’ to push for the entirety of the new powerline to be undergrounded. While acknowledging the extra cost, the party suggests this is “exactly the kind of long-term infrastructure project that is worthy of investment through the green new deal”.
Laura Moodie, the Greens’ lead candidate for the South of Scotland region for the Holyrood 2021 elections, said she was “taken aback by how little thought was given to the climate and ecological impacts of the development”.
“Time and again, SPEN’s assessment waives away the impact on birdlife and rare mammals as ‘not significant’ or balanced out by habitats elsewhere. This seems to be optimistic to the point of naivety,” she said.
Moodie said the plans would result in “losing woodland twice the size of Monaco” and that this would “clearly have an impact on the red squirrels, pine martens and red kites that live there”.
Dee and Glenkens SNP councillor Dougie Campbell, who acts as the council’s environment champion, has also spoken out against the overground proposals and called on the Scottish Government to reject SPEN’s application.
Campbell said that, while he agrees the powerline needs to be updated, his “hope had been that SPEN would seek to minimise the impact on the environment and wildlife as much as possible”.
“Having read the environmental assessment I don’t think they’ve given sufficient weight to environmental concerns. I think the proposals would result in an unacceptable level of impact on wildlife due to the hectares of ancient forestry which would need to be cut down,” he said.
In light of this, Campbell was “disappointed to see the application completely disregard the undergrounding option” and to see that the primary reason provided was cost.
Responding to these concerns, SPEN stressed the need to replace the existing lines, which are over 80 years old, and said that while “undergrounding would mitigate some effects, such as landscape and visual”, it would “have potentially greater effects on other environmental considerations such as ecology and archaeology”.
A spokesperson for SPEN said: “Our proposal will see the removal of 90km of existing steel towers between Kendoon, Glenlee, Tongland and Dumfries, some of which run through and past key environmental sites and sites which support tourism and recreation such as Loch Ken. These will be replaced with a total of 48km of new overhead lines which will be a mixture of steel towers and wooden poles.”
The spokesperson added that, if the company receives consent, it intends to “work with communities and landowners to identify opportunities for greenspace improvements”, including “linking up or extension of existing core paths, creation of nature trails, cycleways and other routes”.
Header image thanks to iStock/hipproductions