OVER THE last six years, Whitelee Windfarm has generated visitor numbers way beyond initial expectations.
Around 70,000 people come to the site, on the windswept, wild Eaglesham moors, every year.
The 215 towering turbines, impressive though they are, only make up part of the story.
“People come here to birdwatch, to have lunch in the café, to sit and admire the views, to horse-ride, to run marathons, ride mountain bikes…….” reels off countryside ranger Rennie Mason. “One of the things that makes Whitelee work is the vastness of the site and the fact it can offer so many different things to so many different people.
“You can come here to do extreme sports, or you can come here to walk the dog. It’s an amazing resource.”
Whitelee is the UK’s biggest windfarm, generating up to 539 megawatts of electricity, enough to power just under 300,000 homes. It is also home to more than 130 kilometres of trails to explore, a visitor centre run by Glasgow Science Centre, a café and views which will take your breath away.
“I know people who come just to sit and look out over the countryside,” says Rennie, who is one of two countryside rangers employed at the site.
“There is a lot of rubbish written about windfarms but generally, when people actually come here, they realise how peaceful and beautiful it is. Turbines aren’t noisy, they don’t chop birds up in mid-air…there are a lot of myths out there.
“We do get anti-windfarmers here but I have never met one who hasn’t left the site with changed views.”
Whitelee’s inclusion alongside Loch Lomond and Edinburgh Castle in the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions best attractions list elevated it to ‘great day out’ status and a packed schools and family events programme underlines the sheer variety of things to do on the site.
Rennie and his fellow ranger Kate Williamson are just as likely to be teaching bushcraft skills to Scouts or arranging spooky walks for kids at Halloween as they are fixing signposts or carrying out reptile surveys.
“There is always something for us to do,” grins Rennie. “I had to take a delegation from the Polish government round the site once, and we also looked after an Italian film crew who wanted to make a television programme about windfarms.”
Whitelee access project officer Nick Prower has been on site since 2008.
“It’s been very rewarding to see how people have made use of Whitelee,” he says. “The Outdoor Access Code in Scotland means the windfarm can be opened up to people and that has made a huge difference. We get visitors from down south and Ireland who are amazed by how close you can get to the turbines.
“And many people have told us how the windfarm has opened up this whole part of the moor – before, it wasn’t well used because parts of it were fairly inaccessible.”
What amazes Rennie, he says, is the age range of the people he meets every day.
“We get students from at university, pre-schoolers and pensioners, all looking for something different,” he says. “The Whitelee Stroller Striders, for example, are an amazing group that started in 2011, for new parents wanting to get active.
“Since it first started around 400 new mums and dads have taken part, joining in a free, hour-and-a-half walk through the turbines.”
Walking in the September sunshine when we visited were Fiona Robertson and her five-month-old son Logan, Lindsay Gibb and her son Harris, who is 21 weeks, and Sarah Adams with her son Brodie, who is seven months.
“I came here at first with my son Callum, who is now three and a half,” explains Fiona, from Newton Mearns.
“It was great – I was really fed up having to go back to work, knowing I couldn’t come here on a Tuesday morning for a chat and a walk in the fresh air.”
Lindsay, who is from Kilmarnock, agreed: "This is my first walk and it was great. It's a lovely place and the walk is ideal for getting the babies to sleep."
Recent events at Whitelee have included treks by the British Horse Society, a mountain bike orienteering course which attracted more than 80 children and a 50k ultra marathon.
“The organisers of both the mountain bike and the marathon events were delighted by how successful they were and they are already talking about coming back next year,” says Rennie.
Plans for the future include more signposted trails, new maps and upgrades to existing rights of way which have fallen into disrepair. There will also be a new car park at the Ardochrig end of the site, near the village of Auldhouse.
“Schools use Whitelee for lots of different things, from energy topics to learning more about wildlife and we do get our fair share of exciting birds and animals here,” smiles Rennie.
“There are badgers, otters, adders and more than 100 species of birds. We even had a family of swallows build a nest about the entrance to the rangers’ hut.”
He grins: “Most swallows have disappeared now but ours are hardy – they are still here, braving the winds and the wild weather."