Wind farm construction 'cuts golden plover numbers by 80%'
The construction of a wind farm in Sutherland led to an 80% drop in the number of golden plovers in the area, according to a five-year study.
Scientists have now said their research project should be used as the basis for future studies on the effects of wind farms on other bird species.
The study was funded by the Gordonbush site's owners, energy company SSE, and conducted by RSPB Scotland.
SSE said it had tried to minimise any potential risk to golden plovers.
The study monitored golden plover numbers before, during and after construction.
According to the report, the drop in numbers was greater than in areas surrounding the wind farm that were studied over the same period.
Lead researcher Dr Alex Sansom said: "Golden plovers breed in open landscapes and it is likely that the presence of wind turbines in these areas leads to birds avoiding areas around the turbines.
"This study shows that such displacement may cause large declines in bird numbers within wind farms.
"It will be important to examine whether these effects are maintained over the longer term at this site, and we should also use these detailed studies to examine the effects of wind farms on other bird species."
Golden plover, of which there are believed to be between 38,000 and 59,000 breeding pairs in the UK, are protected under the European Birds Directive.
It places "great emphasis on the protection of habitats" for 500 endangered and migratory species across the European Union.
Aedan Smith, head of planning and development for RSPB Scotland, said it was vital that wind farms "like any development, are sited to avoid harming our most important places for wildlife".
He added: "This important study shows that bird numbers can be seriously affected by badly-sited wind farms in more ways than simply colliding with turbine blades, and highlights the importance of getting things right at the outset, so that impacts can be avoided."
A spokesman for SSE said the company had worked in partnership with RSPB Scotland from the outset to minimise any potential risk to the golden plover population in the Gordonbush area.
The spokesman added: "Long-term studies at other Scottish wind farms have generally shown that golden plover numbers are not adversely affected by wind turbines, and we have a long-term habitat management plan in place at Gordonbush.
"SSE regards itself as a responsible developer that always engages with all relevant bodies, including Scottish Natural Heritage, with respect to our ongoing environmental obligations."