WILDLIFE campaigners claim an independent study into Scottish and Southern Energy’s controversial plans for a 39-turbine wind farm at Strathy South in Caithness shows that two turbines would be sufficient for their needs.

As the public inquiry into the proposals reopens today, RSPB Scotland insisted that as few as two turbines, located elsewhere in the wider local area, may be able to generate sufficient income to restore the damaged site and accused SSE of “using a sledgehammer to crack a nut”.

Strathy South is in the heart of the Flow Country peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland – one of the most important areas of blanket bog in Europe, which is protected under European law for its importance for wildlife.

However, the area was damaged by non-native commercial forestry planting in the 1980s and SSE had argued that a large wind farm would remove the trees and pay for restoration of the peatland.

The charity said that plan would mean the installation of 39 turbines of up to 135 metres high, large concrete foundations and more than 30,000 metres of track, which would prevent the area from being fully restored.

However, an independent study commissioned by RSPB Scotland has found that all the funds needed to carry out full restoration of the site could be raised by as few as two commercial scale turbines. These turbines could be located elsewhere in the wider local area, on a much less sensitive site, it claims.

RSPB Scotland has repeatedly stated that Strathy South is not a suitable location for a wind farm and has countered SSE’s claims by pointing out that the commercial forestry will eventually be removed, regardless of whether or not the wind farm goes ahead.

It insisted that there are also a wide range of alternative funding sources available for peatland restoration, and restoration is already being funded and delivered on other sites nearby.

Pete Gordon, RSPB Scotland conservation planning officer, said: “RSPB Scotland is a strong supporter of renewable energy including wind farms, but they must be sited to avoid damaging our most important places for wildlife. Fortunately the vast majority of developers act responsibly and avoid our most sensitive wildlife sites.

“This independent study shows that wind energy could help restore the Strathy South site, but the scale of wind farm proposed by SSE is unnecessary. The income from as few as two turbines elsewhere may be sufficient to restore the site.

“It is now clear that if SSE really cared about the protection and restoration of the Flow Country peatlands they wouldn’t be pushing to build a wind farm on this scale at this unique site.

“Building a 39-turbine wind farm on this sensitive site in order to fund its restoration, when it’s clear that as few as two turbines located elsewhere may be able to deliver the same benefits, is like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

“One also has to question where all the additional revenue from the remaining 37 turbines SSE is proposing for Strathy South would go.”

SSE described the RSPB’s report as “speculative” and “misleading”.

An SSE spokesman said: “SSE has examined RSPB’s speculative report as part of the public local inquiry process for Strathy South. SSE believes it to be substantively inaccurate and misleading, whilst lacking in detail in several key aspects.

“It also ignores the wide-ranging benefits the wind farm would bring to the local economy and local people who are widely supportive of the wind farm proposal.

“RSPB also dismisses the climate change benefits of the project. The peat restoration funding SSE’s Strathy South project offers is unparalleled in the sheer scale of restoration and management proposed within a single project proposal.’’

Last year, the Strathy South application triggered an inquiry on the basis of concerns raised by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) over two bird species, greenshank and red-throated diver. However, experts have judged the approach taken by SNH to assess the impact on the birds in this case as over-precautionary.

SSE said the view of leading Scottish ornithologists giving evidence at the final sessions of the public local inquiry in Strathy Village tomorrow was that “Strathy South wind farm and peatland restoration proposal guarantees significant net gain for the environment”.

Martin Scott, ornithology specialist at survey group RPS Group, said: “Our detailed investigations have concluded that no concerning impacts are likely from the Strathy South project, and that overall it is guaranteed to deliver a significant net gain for the environment.”