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Passion for peat

WHEN Dr Dick Birnie raised the poor state of Shetland’s blanket bog at a public meeting attended by crofters and farmers he didn’t get much sympathy for his views.

He told them that decades of intensive sheep grazing had left Shetland’s peat covered hills in a deplorable state, degraded and often eroded down to the bare peat.

That was back in 1985 when generous European subsidies were paid per head and the hill was stocked to capacity with ever hungry sheep.

Twenty five years later, the ecological value of blanket bog has been widely recognised and its role as a carbon sink has entered the national debate on climate change.

Dr Birnie’s views that something urgent needs to be done in Shetland to turn around the fate of this valuable eco-system is as valid as it was back in the eighties.

There are widespread and extensive areas of bare peat on the 90 square kilometre Viking Energy site, with peat eroding at a rate of one to four centimetres per year.

Some areas are slowly recovering due to fewer sheep roaming the hill, but others could do with a helping hand, i.e. a management plan to stop the peat from emitting greenhouse gases.

This is where the proposed Viking Energy wind farm comes in. The developer say they would restore some of the most degraded areas if they get consent to build their 127 turbine wind farm.

Opponents say the state of the peat is not as bad as portrayed by Viking and allege that arguing in favour of industrialising the hills to enhance the state of the peat moor defeats the purpose of sustainability as a principle.

They also question the much debated carbon payback calculation and describe the assumed payback time of about a year as flawed and not credible.

But Dr Birnie, who was commissioned by Viking to re-assess the condition of the blanket bog on the proposed wind farm site and provide advice on ensuring that the carbon pay back calculator was well applied, believes the figures produced are “reasonably robust”.

He is wise enough not to voice an opinion on the pros and cons of this particular wind farm proposal, but as a man with a passion for peat he offers the view that income from the wind farm could fund the much needed management plan.

After speaking at a public meeting in Lerwick on Wednesday, attended by 53 people from both camps, the scientist from Macaulay Scientific Consulting Ltd is glad to be out on the hill again the following day.

Public meetings, he says, are generally not a good way of discussing such controversial matters as wind farms because most people attending go there with pre-conceived views.

Much better then to head out in a force eight south easterly for some fresh air on the ridge of the Mid Kames, just west of Petta Water.

Here the damage done by intensive sheep grazing, mechanical peat cutting and subsequent erosion is very obvious. But there is also evidence of regenerations even in the most hostile of environments once stock densities have been reduced.

As consultant, Dr Birnie has given advice on many wind farm projects across Scotland.

But the real issue, be it in Shetland or anywhere else, is not how tom win the argument over peat or any other potential conflict issue. It is about communication, credibility and ownership.

“I feel I have some knowledge and insight that might be of some help. I am keen to offer that in any way I can. I cannot be either for or against the development. I try very hard to be independent, and try and offer such knowledge and information that I have to either side.

“I hope that in the last couple of days having had visits out into the field with folk from both sides of the argument, people have come away feeling that they are a little better informed,” he says.

It is clear that his passion goes further than peat; it extends to people as well. With that in mind he is willing to offer some general advice on how not to become entrenched in the protracted and poisonous wind farm debate.

“If I am passionate about peat, then I am also very, very interested in the way that wind farm developments have happened across Scotland. I have a peculiar combination of interests in wind farms, communities and community development.

“I am concerned that a lot of wind farm debates have become very divisive. My own community in Strathdon in western Aberdeenshire is very divided by wind farm debates.

“That is the collateral damage, and that damage can last a very long time. It is important that people understand the wider picture and understand the process they are going through.

“Indeed that process could be better managed, which is one of my fundamental points, and that is why I would much rather have meetings in the field or on the hill than in village hall situation which tends to be much more uncomfortable for everybody concerned.

“A lot of this is about how you let people have their voices heard. It is about equity and listening to people,” he concludes.

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