CONSERVATIONISTS have hailed a “landmark decision” to refuse permission for a wind farm because it borders a wild land area.

A report found the Limekiln Wind Farm in Caithness would have boosted the economy without harming tourism or local communities.

But yesterday, Energy Minister Fergus Ewing blocked the development because the site borders one of Scotland’s last remaining areas of wilderness.

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Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) mapped the country’s wild spaces last year and the places listed, though lacking official designation, are now taken into account by planning officers.

It is understood that the minister’s decision, which upholds the recommendations of a public local inquiry into the issue, marks the first time a development has been refused on wild land grounds alone. The company behind the project may appeal the decision.

Last night the John Muir Trust (JMT), which opposed the

Limekiln development, said the decision was of a “national significance”.

Helen McDade, head of policy for the Trust, said: “As someone who grew up in Caithness, I am delighted for the local community which campaigned strongly to protect the unique character of this landscape. But this is also a landmark decision of national significance. The refusal explicitly states that ‘significant weight should be attached to the policies protecting wild land’.

“It sends a clear message to developers that Scotland’s wild land is a valuable national asset which merits strong protection.”

According to the SNH map, there are 42 wild land areas in Scotland, including large parts of the Cairngorms and Wester Ross as well as locations in Argyll, Orkney, Shetland, southern Scotland and the Western Isles.

Taken together, the sites make up almost 20 per cent of the country and Scottish planning policy emphasises the need to protect them.

The Dorset-based Infinergy firm aimed to erect 24 turbines on the Limekiln Estate in Reay, with 15 of these standing 139m high and the remainder at 126m high.

More than 400 letters of objection were sent by opponents of the scheme, which was to border the East Halladale Flows wild land area of peatlands.

The boggy area, one of the world’s rarest habitats, is a major carbon sink.

Highland councillors objected unanimously to the scheme, calling it “visually shocking” and the JMT said it would have a visual impact on 15 per cent of the wild land area.

In a report to the Scottish Government in February, the Directorate for Planning and Environmental Appeals said Infinergy’s proposal “would not give rise to any detrimental impacts, either singly or cumulatively, sufficient to outweigh the benefits”.

However, it added that “it has not been demonstrated that the proposal would not have a significant adverse impact” on the wild land area.

The report went on: “The proposed development is not fully supported by national policies which promote the development of onshore wind farms in appropriate locations and which recognise wild land as a nationally important asset.”

Yesterday Ewing said: “We have been clear that wind farms can only be built in the right places, and that proposed developments are subject to strict planning laws.

“Our policy strikes a careful balance between utilising

Scotland’s significant renewable energy resources while protecting our finest scenic landscapes and natural heritage.

“Each application is considered on its merits, which is why I have refused permission for the proposed wind farm at Limekiln in line with the reporter’s recommendation.”

The Scottish Government aims to supply 100 per cent of the country’s electricity through renewables from 2020 and a report by Audit Scotland found the average annual increase in wind technology will have to double to meet that goal.

Infinergy said the Limekiln site, near Dounreay power station, was in a “very windy location” currently used as a commercial woodland plantation “where wind power development makes perfect sense”.

The turbines would have generated 75megawatts, enough to meet the annual power demands of around 43,600 houses per year – 43 per cent of Highlands households.

The company, which may seek a judicial review, said it was “bitterly disappointed”, with managing director Esbjorn Wilmar adding: “Ministers have missed a huge opportunity today to contribute to the renewable energy targets they themselves have set.

“It effectively creates a buffer zone around wild land areas, reducing the potential that this country has to create clean energy and sustainable communities.”