Recently published research has identified a larger effect of windfarm development on Golden plover than was previously  thought.  Published by the RSPB in the science journal, Ibis, the research investigated the  population  of Golden plover in the vicinity of  the  Gordonbush wind farm near Bonar Bridge  in  the Highlands. The purpose of the research  was to investigate the impact of a  wind farm  development at this site on the Golden plover population before, during and after its  construction.   Principal Ornithologist Jenny Bell considers what the new could mean for other wind farm developments.

Jenny Bell - Principal Consultlant - OrnithologyEssentially, the study found a reduction of up to 79% in breeding pairs on the site once the wind farm became operational when compared with similar areas in the vicinity of the site where no wind farm had been built. The study controlled for various other factors with the aim of establishing if the wind farm was having any effect on the Golden plover population. While other factors could be affecting the result, given the size of reduction, it’s hard to argue that the decline in Golden plover is not attributable to the effects of developing a wind farm in this location.

But this research actually generates as many questions as it answers. Earlier research carried out by some of the same authors generated contradictory results for this species. A 2009 paper identified an avoidance effect leading to a reduction in the density of breeding birds within 500 metres of wind turbines while a second paper published in 2012 found no such disturbance effects on Golden plover. Both papers assessed results from a larger number of wind farms. The 2012 paper also compared the wind farms with similar areas nearby where no wind farm had been built – referred to as ‘control sites’.

The new research is much more detailed than those two earlier analyses, but is over a relatively short period. The post construction period consists of the two years following completion of the wind farm.

Much longer running research has been carried out at Farr wind farm near Inverness, where surveys have been on-going over the seven years since construction was completed. In most years, this has included surveys of a nearby control site. This has shown no evidence of birds being displaced by the wind farm. Birds have continued to breed near the turbines with no evidence of a decline in numbers or of birds relocating away from turbine locations.

Bredding Bird surveysSo the science remains unclear as to whether wind farms have a significant effect on Golden plover. At best we can say they may do but the effects are very much site dependent. Ultimately, more research is still required to understand why Golden plover might be deterred on one wind farm site but not on another. On-going research at Gordonbush would also be advantageous to determine whether the effects identified are long-lasting or a temporary or short term phenomenon. Given that the Golden plover were not present during the winter that the turbines were built, it’s possible that upon returning from wintering further south, the landscape may have been altered to such an extent that they were unable to recognise the site as somewhere they had previously nested.

Where does this leave future wind farm development? The RSPB are likely to use this latest research as a grounds for objecting to any or most wind farms where breeding Golden plover are present. At the same time, there is evidence to show Golden plover can co-exist with wind farms and it remains unclear what causes the species to move away from one wind farm site but to remain on another. The potential for any development to have an impact on Golden plover would have to be considered during the assessment process. Developers have been able to incorporate enhanced mitigation for Curlew into their development plans after research found evidence of potential displacement effects on that species. It seems likely that off-site mitigation for Golden plover may have to be considered perhaps on a conditional basis if monitoring within a development identifies a post construction impact. But given the variation in results from different wind farms, it would seem to be disproportionate to assume that all developments would have this effect. Furthermore, the increasingly challenging economic climate for wind farm development means that large scale mitigation in off-site locations could threaten the viability of some schemes.

Ornithologists and developers may have to get creative to resolve this challenge. But the industry has a lot of experience in managing ecological issues associated with wind farms successfully. Through experience, it has risen to many such challenges to continue to achieve compliance with the principles of sustainable development and to provide renewable energy in a world where the effects of climate change are increasingly being felt.