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Tilting at windmills


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Ronan's report

Sunday May 15th 2011

The world is in constant flux, sometimes it changes really fast, sometimes at a snail's pace. It's been like this for ages - well before humans arrived on the planet.

So you could argue that change is natural, and conservation (or perhaps more particularly - preservation) is a very cultural and human thing.

English chalk streams are a great example of this: a totally man-made environment with water meadows flooded by channels diverted from the natural river; annual weed-cuts; manicured lawn banks. The people of Hampshire, Wiltshire and Dorset probably didn't start out with the object of creating a perfect environment for trout, but that's what they got. This work created a beautiful environment and a whole bunch of heritage, which people now fight to preserve.

I wonder, when the very first channel was dug, or when the first hatch-pool was built, was there a bunch of locals grumbling about how their river was being changed out of all recognition, and that "the pike fishing will be ruined forever"?

I saw something the other day that said when windmills were first built in the Netherlands, there were protests that they were industrial eyesores ruining the Dutch landscape. Nowadays they are seen as one of the defining things about the country, and (apart from a few extreme naturalists) seem widely loved by the Dutch and by people around the world.

That made me smile. I live within an easy walk of three different wind farms. These things are at least as controversial as their early industrial Dutch counterparts.

The Dutch needed wind energy to pump water to keep the land dry, and to mill grain to feed people. Today's argument for wind farms is that we need renewable sources of energy to light and heat our homes.

There is endless to-ing and fro-ing about the economics of wind power and I'm not qualified to pontificate on that. However the biggest objections are often those made on aesthetic grounds. Blots on the landscape.

Well, I can really understand that. It must be a bummer if you've grown up knowing and loving an empty landscape. Bleak moor land has a distinct grandeur and melancholy. It is a specific ecosystem with it's own flora and fauna, which we all value.

But, in the UK it's probably not natural, anymore than the polders in the Netherlands. Most of our moors were once covered in natural woodland.

I have to sheepishly admit that I like the look of wind turbines. They're sleek, and minimalist; the rotors are mesmerising. The blades flash when they catch the sun. They're constantly changing sculptures that tell me which way the wind's blowing and how strong.

In a heavily populated island, running out of oil, we are faced with some tough choices. We can keep our landscape the same as it was for our parents and grand parents and pay even higher prices for imported energy. Or we can move to multiple new forms of energy capture which may change our landscape yet again, but which will help to keep the lights on.

Not an easy, or a happy choice to make.


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