Flood management plans set out ‘potentially vulnerable areas’ of concern
The recent bad weather and subsequent flooding has brought climate change impacts horribly close to home.
Throughout November, main roads were flooded well beyond safe levels, and across the islands, a good number of village roads were impassable for days. Emergency services were called to support people travelling to work and school and in Kildonan, the cut-off villagers even made the national news.
Once such area impacted by flooding was Snishival, where Lexie and Iain MacDonald had to travel on foot over fields and fences to reach their home.
Lexie, who suffers from Multiple Sclerosis, spoke to Am Pàipear about the difficulties they faced: “I was coming home from work around 4pm and as I approached the Snishival bridge, it was clear that the water was well over the road. Thankfully, it was still fairly light and I was able to see just how deep it was. My husband was also heading home from work and we parked our cars back by the main road and together we set off for the hour-long walk across the crofts to get home. There are fences to get over and no clear path through. It was hard-going and at times we were ankle deep in water. By the time I got to my door, I was exhausted to the point of collapse.”
The issue is causing considerable worry for those who live in flood-prone areas, and it isn’t just a question of inconvenience, as Lexie explains: “In bad weather, you can’t be sure you will get home at all, so you have to plan ahead. I can’t leave the slow-cooker on anymore, for example, and there are worries about animals needing fed. If the weather looks bad, I just won’t go out, and I certainly now don’t go out in the winter evenings, and that can be quite isolating.”
Managing flood risk is a shared responsibility between SEPA, Local Authorities and other agencies, and which body is responsible for which particular part of this complex problem is not always clear cut.
The process by which flood is managed here in the Western Isles is set out in the Outer Hebrides Flood Risk Management Plan, the latest draft of which was open for consultation for three months last year, and is now due to be published by the Comhairle before the end of this year.
The Local Flood Management Plan details five ‘nationally significant’ Potentially Vulnerable Areas, which it lists as: a small section of Stornoway near the Point road; a good portion of North Uist; and the vast majority of Benbecula, South Uist and Barra. The Plan goes on to quantify the Western Isles risk by stating: “Currently it is estimated that there are 980 people and 820 homes and businesses at risk from flooding. This is estimated to increase to 1,500 people and 1,200 homes and businesses by the 2080s, due to climate change. The annual cost of flooding is approximately £3.4 million. Note however that flooding from wave overtopping is not fully represented in the assessment of flood risk and the impact of coastal flooding may be underestimated.”
The actions set out in the Plan include awareness raising, data gathering, flood forecasting and warning, hazard mapping, land use planning and maintenance. Aside from an objective to design, procure and construct the elements of the South Ford Flood Protection Scheme, there are very few actual works listed for the period of the Plan.
A Comhairle spokesperson told Am Pàipear: “The drainage systems in Uist can be quite complex and dependent on a variety of structures and open channels to operate effectively. Ownership and maintenance responsibilities for structures and channels can be; private landowner, community landowner, tenant, Scottish Government (Agriculture and Rural Economy) or Local Authority (Comhairle).
“The Comhairle recognises the vulnerabilities in Uist to surface and tidal flooding and a requirement to better understand the present and future impacts in relation to climate change. This can be achieved through the mechanisms of the Flood Risk Management Plan, however funding for flood studies is restrictive (£30k pa).
“In a more immediate timescale the convening of a meeting of major stakeholders in South Uist, including SEPA, Storas Uibhist, Scottish Government, Scottish Water and the Comhairle, is being considered. This would be to agree a common approach to maintenance and response to flooding events.”
Stòras Uibhst CEO Darren Taylor said: “It is increasingly apparent that the current infrastructure across the estate, whether that it is the responsibility of Stòras, the Comhairle or the government, is struggling to cope with the rainfall we are now experiencing. In addition to carrying out work on certain drains that Stòras has responsibility for, we have supported townships over the last couple of years to carry out work and we would encourage all township clerks to contact us to discuss projects that need funding in 2023.
“We are also planning to carry out major improvements to the bridge at Snishival in 2023. We will also be working closely with townships on Benbecula in 2023 to develop a coordinated plan for improvements to the main drain there. Stòras will do its part but we cannot tackle the problem on our own. Specifically we will be pushing the government for improvements to the Roe Glas outlet, which are needed urgently.”
Cllr Uisdean Robertson, CNES Chair of Transportation & “I am acutely aware of the growing concerns within communities in Uist and Barra following recent flood events. Intense and localised rainfall, when falling on already saturated ground, can very quickly inundate lochs and drainage channels, affecting low-lying sections of roads. These events seen to be occurring more frequently.
“It is important that we all do all that we can to mitigate the impacts of these weather events, and this includes all landowners and responsible organisations, such as the Comhairle, SEPA and Scottish Government, working together to ensure that the existing drainage systems are operating as efficiently as possible. There may still be times when the drainage infrastructure quite simply can’t cope and under these circumstances a proportionate and coordinated response will be required, potentially with the assistance of emergency services. People should not put themselves at risk by attempting to cross flooded roads where the depth of water or road edge location are unknown.”
Scottish Government Wildlife Bill to ban all muirburning on peatland
New proposals put forward by Scottish Government will introduce a ban on all muirburning on peatland and require a licence for every muirburn carried out on other types of land. The ban will see the majority of Uist’s burns rendered illegal.
The proposals are part of a new Wildlife Management (Grouse) Bill, due to be published in the 2022/23 parliamentary session and out for consultation until until 15th December.
The new Bill is based on the findings of an independent review of grouse moor management, known as the Werrity Report, and covers a range of measures including the introduction of new licensing requirements for grouse shooting and restrictions on snaring and trapping.
The current Muirburn Code sets out a range of stipulations about how and when land can be burned, prohibiting burns outside the agreed 1 October to 15 April season, restricting burns on certain areas, for example Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and encouraging those planning muirburns to alert the relevant landowners in advance. The Code is accompanied by common sense safety guidance, including the advice that burns should not be started between one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise or within 30m of a public road and that fires should not be left unattended.
While the current Code advises against burning on peatland, there is currently no legal prohibition against it, unless on SSSIs.
The new legislation sets out a much more stringent approach, putting in place a statutory ban on all muirburning on peatland (currently defined as peat of a depth of 40cm or more) unless it is part of an approved habitat restoration programme, to protect public safety or for the purpose of research. The legislation will also introduce the requirement for a licence to be obtained for burning on a limited range of permitted areas, such as dry heath.
The Consultation document states: “The impacts of burning on carbon release and sequestration on moorland are disputed and there is conflicting scientific evidence. However, given the importance of peatland to Scotland’s net zero target, we have taken the view that a precautionary approach is required until there is more consensus on the impacts of muirburn.
“Peatland restoration is a key part of the Scottish Government’s goal of achieving a net-zero Scotland by 2045 as peat soils cover almost a quarter of Scotland, about 1.7 million hectares, storing some 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon – the equivalent of an estimated 140 years of Scotland’s emissions. If we continue to allow unregulated muirburn on peatland, the progress that has been made restoring Scotland’s peatlands could be negated by damage caused by muirburn.”
Scottish Crofting Federation Chair Donald Mackinnon said: “Muirburn is an important tool that crofters should continue to have available to them for the management of hill grazing….While it is not crofters that are the target of this proposed legislation, it is clear that crofters will be affected. SCF does not oppose the principal of licensing but any scheme must be proportionate to the activity being carried out, a one size fits all approach will not work. Licenses should be easily obtainable for those already following best practice. We need to understand more about the implications of the proposal to ban burning on deep peat, we recognise the climate impact of this activity but there may still be specific areas where this practice is appropriate and exceptions should be possible.”
The Wildlife Management (Grouse) Bill consultation closes on December 15th.
Suspected Uist H5N1 cases waiting to be confirmed
The RSPB and NatureScot have confirmed that a number of dead and dying swans have been found in the Drimsdale area.
In accordance with current guidance, the birds were reported to Defra but delays in testing have held back confirmation of the suspected presence of Avian Influenza H5N1.
Local NatureScot staff are now being trained to allow them to carry out the required testing regime and it is hoped that confirmation of suspected cases will be a smoother, quicker process in future.
Members of the public are reminded not touch or pick up any dead or visibly sick birds and to report a single dead bird of prey, three dead gulls or wild waterfowl or five or more dead wild birds of any other species to the Defra helpline on 03459 33 55 77.
An Avian Influenza Prevention Zone is now in place across the UK, bringing additional regulations for all poultry keepers. The measures require all free ranging birds to be kept within fenced areas, with ponds, watercourses and areas of permanent standing water fenced off and all feeding and watering provision to be kept within enclosed areas to discourage wild birds.
Environmental impact studies submitted
The construction of a sub-orbital vertical launch spaceport at Scolpaig Farm, North Uist reached an important waymarker last month with the publication of additional environmental impact studies.
The Spaceport project is led by a consortium that includes Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, HIE, QinetiQ, Rhea Group and Commercial Space Technologies Ltd. Plans for the project were first submitted in the summer of 2019 but later withdrawn after more than 600 objections were raised.
At a public information session held in November 2021, the developers showcased revised plans for a scaled down project, substantially reducing the size of the development and committing to a maximum of ten launches per year.
In February this year, revised plans were submitted along with environmental and other impact reports and a further period of consultation ensued. The new plans detailed ‘construction of sub-orbital vertical launch spaceport, including access road, fencing, launch pad with demountable launch tower, water and liquid storage tanks with associated services and infrastructure, repair and use 1no former farm building for storage, water pumps and communications facility, stabilize 1no derelict former farm building, upgrade to existing farm track and water crossing, vehicle parking and periodic intermittent siting of storage containers.’
As Planning Authority, the Comhairle announced in September that it had requested further Supplementary Environmental Information (SEI), which was due to be submitted at the end of November, and should be available to view on the Comhairle’s planning portal.
The Project will now go through a further period of consultation.
A spokesperson for CNES confirmed that the SEI would be available for comment, stating: “Receipt of the SEI will be advertised in both the Stornoway Gazette and Edinburgh Gazette in accordance with the regulatory requirements and will invite the public to review and comment upon the SEI. A re-consultation will also take place with relevant consultees.
A detailed assessment of the planning application proposal will follow, which will have regard to comments made by members of the public and specialist consultees.
A comprehensive report detailing the planning assessment and a recommendation will be prepared for consideration by the Planning Board of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, in due course.”
By Danny Rafferty
Uisinis Bothy is on the south side of Mol a Deas, which is a boulder beach about two miles south-west of Uisinis Lighthouse. It was first renovated by the Mountain Bothies Association (MBA) volunteers in 1979 in memory of Donald H Stuart, a staunch contributor to early MBA work parties, and it offers basic accommodation and shelter to walkers and those interested in the outdoors. It is the only MBA-maintained bothy in the Outer Hebrides.
The MBA was founded in 1965 and the first projects were in the Borders of Scotland and the north of England. The MBA works in partnership with estate owners and today maintains over 100 bothies with the majority in rural and upland Scotland. With the agreement of the estate owners the MBA renovates traditional vernacular buildings in remote locations and renders them habitable. In the majority of cases it does not actually own the bothies. This work is done by volunteers, as is everything else in the MBA except for some outsourcing for the purposes of audit and membership affairs. On its fiftieth anniversary in 2015 it received the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service.
The MBA is a membership organisation and is financed by subscriptions and the occasional legacy. You do not have to be a member to use bothies and there is no charge. You are, however, expected to follow common-sense rules and respect the building, the environment and your fellow-users. In short, leave the place in as good or better condition than you found it. All bothies have a bothy book and the number of entries helps us to monitor levels of use. Many interesting anecdotes are recorded and some people are inspired to create poetry and pictures. An increasing number of visitors are from abroad.
Uisinis is a small two-roomed building facing east-west about 50 metres above the shore. The first room is a storeroom for tools and some fuel. Part of the floor here is earthen. The living-space has two wide bunkbeds and a single bench which also can also serve as a bed. It has a stove which can burn dry peat, coal or driftwood but not plastic. Water is obtained from a burn 200 metres to the south, but there must have been a closer source when the building was continuously occupied. The bothy can accommodate about six persons in reasonable comfort.
Today the east side of South Uist is uninhabited and seems remote. Its rugged character is very different to the flat fertile lands of the west. However in the past it did have advantages as a place of settlement: it was more sheltered from the prevailing south-westerlies; it had all-season access to the Minch at a time when fishing was far more productive; it had a plentiful supply of seaweed for fertiliser and kelp, peat for fuel, and possibly a slightly milder climate. Like Knoydart across the Minch it was a good place for wintering cattle. Testimony to the former sizeable population can be seen in the landscape with the numerous feannagan – lazybeds – in evidence. However sheep husbandry was introduced after the change in estate ownership in 1838 and the catastrophe of the 1846 Potato Famine. The existing population was removed and a lesser number of shepherds and their families mainly from the Bracadale area of Skye introduced to the area.
The building we see today probably dates from the 1860s and was continuously occupied at least until the early 1920s when the famous Scottish naturalist Seton-Gordon happened upon it when he was lost in mist. He was well received by the resident family and this is recorded in his ‘Hebridean Memories’ – still in print.
When the MBA took on the building in 1978, Uisinis was still being used by crofters seasonally for gatherings. In fact there was always guidance for recreational users that priority should be given to them. The crofters would visit the lighthouse staff in the evening. The keepers were able to receive television beamed from Skye before it arrived in Uist and the visitors could then describe the programmes and relate storylines to friends and relatives at home. The lighthouse became automatic in the early 1970s.
There was an MBA work-party at Uisinis in 1998 and the building was transformed by four work-parties between 2011 and 2015. In 2014 the old roof was removed and a new one put in its place. That took a small team of volunteers a full month to execute and was a Herculean task. Stòras Uibhist has always been supportive with transport and assistance.
Not only is Uisinis a beautiful place to visit it also is rich in archaeological remains particularly Iron Age wheelhouses and souterrains. If you intend to visit with a party of four or more, you should inform the estate and myself. During the stag-shooting season which runs from about the beginning of September to the end of October users should inform the estate on 01878700101 of their intended movements.
Given the weather in these islands there are always maintenance issues. If you would like to join me in caring for the bothy, I can be reached by email on email@example.com. My landline is 01878700249 (voicemail). You don’t have to have DIY skills though that of course would be useful, just some enthusiasm and a willingness to help. If you wish to learn more about the Mountain Bothies Association, there is an excellent website.
Danny Rafferty, MBA Maintenance Organiser, Uisinis.
By Simon M. Davies
There can be no doubt that place names are of immense importance, not only for finding and identifying a location, but also for giving indications of its former uses, ownership or cultural associations. This is particularly true of the traditional Gaelic names which often contain a wealth of information in their formulation. However, so much of the accuracy can be inadvertently lost when surveying and recording of information is carried out by non-Gaelic speakers and reliance is placed on phonetic approximations. Blanket corporate policies can further worsen the situation for a few unfortunate localities.
There is a certain loch on the Isle of South Uist, within Howmore township at NF 76 36, whose name made its cartographic debut as ‘Loch Rigarey’ on the ‘Plan of the Island of South Uist’, surveyed 1805 by Wm Bald, a 17-year-old prodigy from Burntisland, Fife. By the time of the O.S. 1st Edition, the loch had been divided into two parts by the building of the road, now the A865, and the two resultant lochs now had individual names. The name ‘chosen’ by O.S. for the main loch had evolved into Loch Rigarry – from the Name Book options of Loch Rigarry (Neil McIntyre’s suggestion), Loch Rigary (from the Admiralty Chart), Loch Rigarey (from Johnston’s map) or Loch Righarruidh (suggested by A. A. Carmichael, with a note to check this spelling, so possibly Loch Righaraidh). The secondary, eastern loch was now called Loch Eilean a’ Ghille-ruaidh. There was also a school marked adjacent to the township road junction, some 200 metres south of the loch.
In the 1921-30 ‘new’ 1-inch survey, the names remained unchanged, but on a small promontory to the west of the main road, a ‘new’ building group – a small farmstead and outbuildings – are now marked, although the school has not changed its position. During the 20th Century, the angling on South Uist became more important, and the loch began to be referred to as ‘Schoolhouse Loch’ – wrongly identifying the now disused farmstead as a former small schoolhouse. It is likely the name was chosen to avoid any potential Gaelic pronunciation problems. By taking this step, the loch immediately lost its provenance and past, but for this loch, things are about to get worse.
The publication of the new Explorer maps came along, and with that, the desire to reinvigorate the Gaelic names of features on the maps as important cultural features. So, once again, the loch’s name has been changed – and is now proudly (?) sporting the name of Loch an Taigh-Sgoil, marked against the southern portion of the loch. The position of the name “Loch Eilean a’ Ghille-ruaidh” has also been now moved to the West of the main road, which itself has been straightened, widened and repositioned some 20-50 metres east, and now seems to refer to the northern section of the main loch, not the sectioned-off eastern portion.
So, clarity or madness? Should an English name, given to a loch to avoid potential embarrassment of tourists, be translated into Gaelic and gain ‘official’ recognition in a Crown document, erasing all mention of the original Gaelic roots? Or would it be better to retain the Gaelic name – preferably going with a version of Carmichael’s suggestion Righaraidh (King’s Hut or King’s Shieling) – and give it the subsidiary English alternative of Schoolhouse Loch (even though the schoolhouse was never there!).
Were the original phonetic Gaelic suggestions true to the intended origins? The -garry suffix is most commonly from Gearraidh – a term for the intermediate land twixt Machair (the coastal strip of blown shell-sand cover) and Monadh (the peaty marshland pasture). And what of the now anonymous Eastern loch? Perhaps we should adopt a plan of simplicity and just call it ‘Fred’.
All maps referred to in the text are available on the National Library of Scotland at https://maps.nls.uk/
O.S. Name Books can be accessed and interrogated online at https://scotlandsplaces.gov.uk/
Edward Dwelly’s Illustrated Gaelic-English Dictionary was used for referencing translations as needed.
Simon M. Davies has lived on South Uist since 2004 and has had a keen interest in the archaeological, historical and cultural heritage of the West Highlands and the Isles since childhood. He is currently the Chair of the Uist Community Archaeology Group and an active member of ACFA, a national group of field archaeologists specialising in surveying and recording the archaeological landscapes of both mainland Scotland and the Isles.
Restrictions back in place
An outbreak of the highly pathogenic avian influenza has been confirmed on Great Bernera, Isle of Lewis, resulting in a 3km Protection Zone and 10km Surveillance Zone being established around the infected premises.
An increase in the overall number of UK cases has resulted in the UK Government reintroducing its Prevention Zone declaration across Great Britain, making it a legal requirement for all poultry keepers to follow strict biosecurity measures.
All bird keepers – whether keeping birds as pets, in commercial flocks or just a few birds in a backyard flock – are required to keep a close watch for signs of disease and to seek prompt advice from the vet should they have any concerns.
In a joint statement the Chief Veterinary Officers for England, Scotland and Wales said:
“Bird keepers have faced the largest ever outbreak of avian flu this year and with winter bringing an even more increased risk to flocks as migratory birds return to the United Kingdom.
“Scrupulous biosecurity and hygiene measures are the best form of defence, which is why we have declared an Avian Influenza Prevention Zone (AIPZ) across Great Britain, meaning that all bird keepers must take action to help prevent the disease spreading to more poultry and other domestic birds.
The introduction of an AIPZ means regardless of whether you keep a few birds or thousands, you are legally required to meet enhanced biosecurity requirements to protect your birds from this highly infectious disease.”
The new measures means bird keepers must keep free ranging birds within fenced areas, and ensure that ponds, watercourses and areas of permanent standing water are fenced off. Domestic ducks and geese must be separated from other poultry and all birds should be fed and watered in enclosed areas to discourage wild birds.
The Government is asking all poultry keepers to register their flock, even if they only keep the odd hen or duck as a pet. Registration is a legal requirement for flocks of more than 50 or more birds.
The Hebridean Rock Dove
Most of us see a pigeon every day without really noticing it. Since the dawn of human civilization, these birds have followed us around the world.
We first domesticated them to eat, but they soon proved their worth as messengers and sources of entertainment. The crazy feathers of fancy pigeons at exhibitions and shows helped inspire Darwin’s theory of evolution. On the other hand, being so popular has had some unplanned outcomes. All over the world, for the past few hundred years, some of these domestic pigeons have been escaping their cozy lives in captivity and becoming wild. Uniquely adapted to living alongside us, these ‘feral pigeons’ bred and now number in their millions, and can be found in almost every city and town in the world. Feral pigeons are often condemned as pests, making a mess of pretty streets and statues in famous squares all over the world. More positively, for many people, they’re one of very few connections to nature amidst the urban sprawl.
Whilst this global takeover was happening, the original wild pigeon, more technically called the Rock Dove, was doing what it’s always done, nesting in caves and cliffs, and foraging for seeds in meadows. Rock Doves are much shier than feral pigeons and are only found in places like the Outer Hebrides which are far away from their relatives’ urban strongholds. Unlike feral pigeons, who can have black, grey, rusty brown or white plumage, all Rock Doves look identical, with a blue-grey colour, a white patch on their back, and black bars on their wings. Unfortunately for them, their feral cousin has done so well that it has begun to infiltrate the Rock Doves’ habitat. Rather than simply outcompeting their rarer relatives, feral pigeons begin to interbreed with them. Eventually, particularly when feral pigeons outnumber them, Rock Dove populations are replaced with populations of hybrids and feral pigeons.
Whilst Rock Doves used to be found across the entire Mediterranean and Western European coast, they now hang on only in small relict populations. The Outer Hebrides, with its unique agricultural traditions and machair meadows, holds one such population. The rocky coasts of the east and the open lands of the west provide an excellent refuge for Rock Doves. Recent studies of their DNA have proven that they are, for now, essentially free of any contact with domestic or feral pigeons. Of the locations which were included in the study, nowhere else in the UK or Ireland had such a status.
The wild Rock Doves of the Outer Hebrides are one of the least understood birds in the UK. They have usually fallen beneath notice of scientists and birdwatchers, meaning that even basic aspects of their behaviour are not recorded. As long as the Outer Hebrides, and particularly their strongholds in Uist, remain free of colonies of feral and free-flying domestic pigeons, the Rock Dove will survive. So next time you see a pigeon fly by, take a moment to remember this is one of the very few places left in Europe where it’s hasn’t originated from escaped captive birds, but is the original, truly wild, version.
Agricultural bill consultation
Scottish Government proposals for a new Agricultural Bill are open for consultation.
The new Bill is expected to help deliver Government’s Vision for Agriculture, with a focus on high quality food production; climate mitigation and adaptation; nature restoration; and wider rural development. The proposed Bill would also herald a change in rural support, linking half of all direct agricultural and crofting payments to climate action.
Rural Affairs Secretary Mairi Gougeon said: “We are supporting our farmers, crofters and land managers to produce more high quality and sustainable food, as well as ensuring our food system is more resilient.
“The fact is that high quality food production is very much a part of meeting our net zero targets and dealing with the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss. We have ambitious targets and right across the agriculture sector we have the talent and skills to meet our aims.
“I would urge people from all walks of life to get involved and make their views known – these issues affect us all.”
The Bill sits alongside the new National Development Plan for Crofting, introduced in March last year.
The Agricultural Bill consultation closes on 21 November, with new legislation expected to be in place from 2026.
The crofting community is encouraged to help shape the future of agriculture in Scotland by sharing their views at www.consult.gov.scot.
National goose policy review
Members of the public have until 17 October to return their responses to Scottish Government’s five-yearly national goose policy review.
The previous review was carried out in 2017 and recognised that: “There are increasing conflicts in some locations due to growing numbers of some species of migratory and breeding geese and expansion of range, including into new locations.”
This year’s review asks how well the objectives set out in the previous review have delivered, including the aim to ‘minimise economic losses experienced by farmers and crofters as a result of the presence of geese’.
Earlier this year Scottish Government announced funding to help crofters manage the impacts of greylag geese. The Scottish Crofting Federation welcomed the move, but highlighted the funds were not enough to resolve the issue for crofters in the longer term.
SCF Chair Donald MacKinnon said: “It is encouraging that there has been acknowledgement of the threat to crofting and to biodiversity, and the promise of some funding. However, realistically the amounts we are being offered for the islands that support this biodiversity are derisory. It will barely keep the present numbers static let alone reduce them.”
“For example, let’s look at Uist, where crofting agriculture is High Nature Value and the resulting biodiversity world-renowned. The adaptive management scheme on Uist used to have a budget of £40, 000 per year. This was reduced until it tottered along with about £10,000 per year. Then this was cut to zero. Crofters have agreed that they can live with about 2500 birds, and occasional rises to 4000 may be tolerated for short periods. We now have over 8000 birds grazing, trampling and polluting the crops.”
Crofters disheartened by the damage geese cause are encouraged to respond to the review, which is available at www.nature.scot.
Last month’s heatwave saw temperatures reach 40c down south, whilst here in Uist we barely made 11 degrees. Am Pàipear asked STV ’s weather reporter for his views on what climate change will mean for our weather.
In my early career working in meteorology, we talked about ‘global warming’ but over the years the narrative has changed to ‘climate change’ to take in more of the complexity of a warming climate.
Climate change is such a big talking point now because so many areas of the world are experiencing wild and volatile extremes.
Yes, I get the argument that extremes have always been around – of course they have, but it’s the regularity of them and how widespread they’ve become in recent years. All-time records are falling all over the world at either end of the extreme spectrum.
We can’t get away from the images of massive shelves of ice breaking off Antarctica, fires raging around the world, floods ravaging South Sudan, while next door in Ethiopia, mass migrations are taking place due to droughts. And of course, the extreme heat sweeping Europe.
But wait… What about the record-breaking snow we experienced in Central Scotland in 2018 from the Beast from the East? The extreme cold we had in 2010, or the record-breaking cold they’ve experienced in recent winters in the United Sates? And the record cold weather they’re currently experiencing in Australia? Well, this is part of the climate change package of extremes, and that’s why we no longer talk simply about ‘global warming’.
But what about you in the Western Isles?
Often this year, when I’ve been talking about the warm and dry weather, I can almost sense the excitement from viewers, especially the young ones who are currently enjoying their school holidays. However, I can also feel the resentment as I sweep my hand across the Western Isles with the announcement of more trailing weather fronts and showery rain.
I say resentment, but I’m sure there’s a good few of you who don’t really fancy partaking in the extreme heat. But still, it would be good to lose the fronts for a while.
There’s been a trend for the Azores high pressure cell to ridge further north more often and this is what brings the more prolonged drier spells along with warmer weather. Although for Uist, it still predominantly means a westerly airflow, which means being on the edge of the good weather, along with our friends in Shetland.
But what are our climate change markers here? Well unfortunately for my research, I only have three weather stations to look at for the Western Isles. There’s Stornoway, Quidnish in Harris and South Uist Range.
The weather station in Stornoway is the main one I use for climate trends, as it’s one of the longest serving in Scotland and is still recording.
What really stands out from the records is that the biggest climate change marker for the Western Isles is during the winter and spring months. For example, Stornoway has recorded its warmest November night, December night, February night and April night on record, all within the last 20 years. When it comes to warmest days, Stornoway recorded its warmest April day, its warmest July day and mildest November day, all in 2003.
An average winter afternoon in the 70s would have been around 7C in North Uist and Benbecula, but now that’s near 8C. This doesn’t sound a lot, but that change in average masks the number of days above 10C, which are now a lot more frequent.
Our summer average afternoon high has increased from 16C to 17C in the same period and means days with 20C plus are now more common.
The increase in winter and spring temperatures will be seen as a benefit to farmers as this means fewer damaging frosts. In the 60s and 70s, we would normally have recorded about 30 days with air frosts each year in inland parts of North Uist and eastern South Uist, but now that’s around 15-20 days.
I’ve talked a lot about temperature, but let’s look at rainfall. In the 60s and 70s we would get around 1100mm of rain per year but that is now 1300mm. That’s quite a big jump when you think how that equates to an extra two months worth of rainfall compared to 50 years ago.
Uist is no stranger to wind and winter storms, but how is that changing? Well, there was a big rise in the number of severe storms sweeping through the UK from around four per winter in the 1960s to around 14 in the 90s. But it was even stormier in the past – the 1920s for example, had 16 per winter. So it’s been up and down throughout the decades with no clear pattern of change.
And actually, if we look at Stornoway since the stormy period of the 90s, there’s been a very slight decline in the number of days with gales reported.
So it’s likely that changes in our storms are more likely to be driven by natural fluctuations in the Atlantic, with no real evidence to blame man-made factors.
The one main change we’ll see from storms is that coastal flooding could become more of an issue due to rising sea levels, with the fastest change seen over the last 30 years. This could create more issues for our causeways during stormy periods in the future.
So, whilst the climate changes around the world, we’re certainly not immune in the Western Isles. But what does seem evident, is that we’re protected from some of the biggest extremes, especially when it comes to temperature.
What does that mean for the future of our islands? Perhaps increased tourism due to our more comfortable summers, longer growing seasons for farmers and gardeners, an increase in wildfires, changes in wildlife behaviour, increased midge numbers due to warmer winters and increased rainfall, a higher risk of floods and perhaps an increase in causeway closures and damage.
As I always say with climate change, it’s a mixed future of increases and decreases and spikes in rainfall, temperatures, and snowfall. While we can plan and prepare for general trends, being equally prepared for the volatility is almost impossible.