NUMBERS of a threatened bird plummeted by 80 per cent in the first two years after a wind farm was constructed on their breeding site, a study shows.

The golden plover is listed as a species in need of “special conservation measures” concerning its habitat under the EU Birds Directive. However, a study published today by RSPB Scotland found the number of breeding birds at a wind farm in the north of Scotland fell by 80 per cent after an SSE wind plant began operating.

Researchers examined the plover population at the 35-turbine Gordonbush wind farm site in Sutherland for five years, starting in April 2009 before building began.

The project took in two breeding seasons and ended two years into the renewable plant’s operation and found the decline was “markedly greater” than on areas surrounding the wind farm, which lies 12km from Brora. The results are published today in the Ibis academic journal and the charity, which objected to the Gordonbush project when it was first proposed, maintains the site was unsuitable for such a development.

Lead researcher Dr Alex Sansom said: “Golden plovers breed in open landscapes and it is likely that the presence of wind turbines in these areas leads to birds avoiding areas around the turbines.

“This study shows that such displacement may cause large declines in bird numbers within wind farms. It will be important to examine whether these effects are maintained over the longer term at this site, and we should also use these detailed studies to examine the effects of wind farms on other bird species.”

Aedan Smith, head of planning and development for RSPB Scotland said: “It is vital that wind farms, like any development, are sited to avoid harming our most important places for wildlife.

“Fortunately, the vast majority of wind farms pose no significant risk to our wildlife. This important study shows that bird numbers can be seriously affected by badly sited wind farms in more ways than simply colliding with turbine blades, and highlights the importance of getting things right at the outset.”

Breeding golden plovers are found in upland areas across the north and west of the British Isles. However, Scotland is considered the “core” of the breeding range, with populations at their highest in the Outer Hebrides, Shetland and the flows of Caithness and Sutherland.

According to the British Trust for Ornithology, numbers have declined by 13 per cent over the last 40 years and current estimates put the number of breeding pairs at between 38,000 and 59,000.

SSE said it is committed to responsible development and cares for local wildlife in areas where it operates. The power firm said the Gordonbush site has generated enough electricity to power more than 60,000 homes annually since June 2012 and it is currently seeking permission to install a 16 turbine extension.

A spokesperson said: “From the outset SSE has worked in partnership with RSPB Scotland to minimise any potential risk to the golden plover population in the Gordonbush area and SSE has funded RSPB’s research.

“Other long term studies at other Scottish wind farms have generally shown that golden plover numbers are not adversely affected by wind turbines, and we have a long term habitat management plan in place at Gordonbush.

“SSE regards itself as a responsible developer that always engages with relevant bodies, including Scottish Natural Heritage, with respect to our ongoing environmental obligations.”