Alex Salmond is ready to back "turbine-free areas", protecting some of Scotland's most dramatic mountain scenery from the onward march of wind farms, it emerged last night.
Maps drawn up by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) will identify about 28 per cent of the Scottish countryside as "wild land". In those areas, predominantly in the north and west Highlands, planning guidance is being prepared for local authorities, suggesting that wind farm applications should not be approved, expect in special cases.
The guidelines will emerge in the revised drafts of two documents, the Scottish Planning Policy and the National Planning Framework, both due to be published for consultation later this month.
The new advice represents an extraordinary U-turn by the Scottish Government. Mr Salmond once dubbed Scotland "the Saudi Arabia of renewables" and his apparent devotion to wind turbines has brought howls of outrage from community groups, countryside lobbyists, and Donald Trump, the American tycoon.
The First Minister's apparent conversion was revealed by Cameron McNeish, a well-known hiker, and a prominent SNP supporter. He said he had recently discussed the new policy idea with Mr Salmond.
"The First Minister is not averse to the idea of setting up turbine-free areas," said Mr McNeish. "He has come round to the idea that Scotland has areas well worth protecting."
The definition of wild land represents less than a third of the Scottish land mass, and will bring little comfort to communities in Ayrshire, the Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway, many of whom are bitterly opposed to turbines. However, there will be relief for more northerly local authorities, which have been inundated with applications for wind farms.
Supporters of the revised policy say it encourages electricity companies to apply to build turbines only in places without wild land, because the planning process in those regions would be simpler and offer a greater likelihood of approval.
Andrew Thin, the chairman of SNH, is said to back the policy, not least because it offers clarity to developers, as well as protecting some of the most compelling and beautiful scenery in the country.
Last night, Brendan Turvey, SNH's Policy and Advice Manager Renewables, stressed that under any new guidelines wild land would probably not receive an absolute guarantee of protection from all development. But an approved map would identify a precious national resource.
Mr Turvey said: "In our view a map of wild land does not necessarily mean no wind farms in those areas. They would need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis."
He went on: "Wild land is important and sensitive to wind farms. Wild land means there isn't much there in terms of human artefacts. It may be possible to conceal a small hydro scheme without affecting the resource but a large wind farm might be a different matter." In an attempt to build a consensus, civil servants will consult with countryside organisations, including the Mountaineering Council of Scotland, the John Muir Trust and Ramblers Scotland.
David Gibson, the chief officer of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland said it had long supported a national planning policy that specifically identified areas which should be spared from "industrialisation".
"In the last five years we have seen the development of wind farms which could only be described as speculative," said Mr Gibson.
"It has been like a gold rush, with developers guaranteed a return from the subsidies involved, and incentivised to build."
To date, one of the cornerstones of government wind energy policy has been the proposition that turbines did not deter tourism, added Mr Gibson. The survey evidence for this belief was weak, and did not take account of the sheer volume of wind farms proposed, he said. Up to 6,000 wind turbines could be built in Scotland, if every current planning application or scoping study was approved. "It's madness," said Mr Gibson. "There must come a point when people don't come to Scotland any more. Let's hope the First Minister has come round. I'm looking forward to the phone call."
The Scottish government reaffirmed its commitment to wind energy, "suitably located, and subject to a planning process which gives the right level of protection to important landscapes".
A spokesman added: "Alongside planning authorities, SNH, RSPB and others the Scottish Government will work closely to ensure that construction and habitat management of wind farm developments is exemplary and that impacts are minimised.
"We will consult soon on a new draft Scottish Planning Policy and the National Planning Framework main issues report. This will allow us to hear a full range of views on how wild land character should be protected by the planning system."