Charity says corncrake warnings ignored

RSPB Scotland has expressed its frustration that conditions it set out to protect birds during the most sensitive part of the breeding season were not attached to the approval of the Spaceport development at Scolpaig, in North Uist.

Local staff say they feel let down by the process and are calling on Comhairle nan Eilean Siar to refuse licensing for launches during the critical periods of May and June.

RSPB Scotland says that Scolpaig is an important breeding ground for rare and threatened bird species such as the Corncrake, Greenland Barnacle Goose and Ringed Plover. The charity expressed particular concern about noise and said the conditions it had set out in its response to the planning application would have prevented significant negative impacts.

The proposed mitigation plan issued alongside the development proposals included some measures to reduce disturbance from noise and activity, with efforts made to provide suitable habitat for breeding further away from where rockets will be launched.

RSPB Scotland said that while it welcomed these mitigations, it had requested that, should the application be approved, a condition was added preventing launches during the most sensitive part of the bird breeding season.

An RSPB spokesperson said: “The Comhairle chose not to recommend such a condition to restrict launch times. Instead, in their committee report, they said that operators who wish to launch during the bird breeding season will be required to justify potential impacts through a dedicated Assessment of Environmental Effects (AEE), which would form part of their launch licensing requirements. This requirement, however, does not seem to be specified in any planning condition so it is unclear how this will be carried out.”

RSPB Outer Hebrides Island Manager Tom Churchyard added: “It is disappointing that the commercial interests of this development have been placed ahead of the environment at the most sensitive times of year and the Comhairle have failed to include an Assessment of Environmental Effects within their licensing requirements. This leaves the possibility that unacceptable disturbance will be allowed to take place to some of our most protected breeding bird species at the most sensitive time of year. We would urge the Comhairle to refuse licensing for launches during May and June.”

In response to the RSPB’s statement, the Comhairle said:

“The development of the North Uist Spaceport is subject to a number of regulatory regimes of which Planning is only one. The licencing of the Spaceport operations is one regulated by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and is a separate mechanism to the planning process. The Planning system should not duplicate other control regimes such as licencing.

“The planning assessment considered in some detail the potential impact of the development on birds, including breeding birds, and had due regard for the comments of the RSPB and others.The planning authority is satisfied that for the purposes of planning the conditions seeking provision of a Breeding Bird Protection Plans and a Habitat and Amenity Management Plan are sufficient, relevant to the development permitted and reasonable in all respects.

“The CAA as the consenting authority for a Spaceport licence application will consider an Assessment of Environmental Effects (AEE) that the applicant must provide as a part of the licence application for the Spaceport. The CAA would apply licence conditions, including any related to launches during the bird breeding season, as it deems appropriate.”

The campaign group Friends of Scolpaig has confirmed that it will be lodging a petition to the Scottish Parliament and submitting an open letter to Scottish Government and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar.

Scottish ministers confirm go-ahead for Scolpaig development

The Comhairle has welcomed a decision by Scottish Government not to call in the Spaceport 1 planning application for ministerial determination. 

Scottish Government confirmed its intention to wave through the development in a letter to the Comhairle dated July 24th, saying: “It is not Scottish Ministers’ intention to intervene in this application by either issuing a direction restricting the granting of planning permission or by calling in the application for their own determination. Accordingly, you, as determining authority, are hereby authorised to deal with the application in a manner you think fit.”

The Comhairle has confirmed that the decision taken by its Planning Applications Board to approve the application will now stand.

  A Comhairle spokesperson said: “This is another important step forward in the plan to establish Spaceport 1 – a suborbital, vertical launch facility at Scolpaig, North Uist.
“Following receipt of the formal decision notice, our focus will turn to discharging the planning conditions and delivering on the mitigations laid out in the Environmental Impact Assessment.
“Spaceport 1 will provide an opportunity for the economy of the Outer Hebrides to grow and diversify and will provide much needed local, professional jobs and training opportunities. Prospective launch companies are already looking at working with local businesses and establishing an on-island presence to support launches in future years.  Even at this early stage, it is acknowledged by the launch industry that Spaceport 1 – and the Outer Hebrides – has a critical role to play in the expansion of the Scottish and UK space sectors.” 

The campaign group Friends of Scolpaig has greeted the announcement with dismay, saying that the development has not been given time for full consideration.

A spokesperson for the Group told Am Pàipear:
“The Scottish Government Planning and Environmental Appeals Division was duty bound to fully consider and review the submission before concluding its decision. It is difficult to imagine that this requirement could have possibly been carried out in full in the 28 day period between the Comhairle’s submission and the deadline for their deliberation. The submission was made up of detailed plans, illustrations and diagrams and literally thousands of pages of technical reports and opinions, we feel no comfort that this exercise can have been executed with any proper scrutiny.”

The Group says that the Comhairle set out to bypass requirements for the longer period of public consultation required for larger developments by carefully structuring the site within a two hectare boundary:

“It was a cynical move that delivered a double blow for Uist; for not only did it effectively shut down any meaningful opportunity for the public to assess and comment on the dozens of complex reports the Comhairle submitted with its application, but worse, it forced the access road to the launch pad right through the farm steadings. If the site had moved beyond a two hectare ‘red line’ boundary, the road could have skirted the historic buildings entirely. As it is, the Comhairle has successfully avoided the longer statutory 12 week consultation period for larger developments and Spaceport 1 will be going ahead without any proper scrutiny of the project’s supporting evidence.”

  The Comhairle has yet to confirm a timeline for construction but said it is anticipated that the first launch from Spaceport 1 could be in late 2024 or early 2025.

Scottish Government’s proposals flounder in deep water

The issue of Highly Protected Marine Areas has almost nudged ferries off the top slot on the local agenda.

Politicians and would-be politicians, local and community councillors, industry leaders and local businesspeople have all been unusually vocal in their opposition to the Scottish Government’s plans to deny pretty much all human activity in at least 10% of Scottish waters by 2026.

Changing fortunes in Holyrood are also giving the issue an unusually large share of the political limelight, with questions and answers kicking the issue first one way and then the other, before finally landing it near, if not into, the long grass.

Despite conflicting statements in the Scottish Parliament, First Minister Humza Yousaf has again confirmed that Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs) will not be imposed in island communities, saying: “This Government will not steamroll through or impose on any community a policy that it is vehemently opposed to.”

On that basis, it is difficult to see where HPMAs could be designated since there is unlikely to be any coastal community that wants them.

Am Pàipear first covered the HPMA proposals at the start of February, setting out the severity of the restrictions and the full extent of their likely impact. The article quoted Angus Campbell, Ludag-based Chair of the Western Isles Fishermen’s Association, who described HPMAs as: “the biggest threat to local fishing in a generation.”

In that same issue, Hector Stewart of Kallin Shellfish Ltd, supplied our monthly Opinion piece, detailing the serious concerns he had about the safety of his business should the HPMAs end up in our waters.

Speaking after the First Minister’s assurances, Mr Stewart said he was pleased to hear the recent change in tone, but warned that the threat to fishing was still very present:

“While it is good to have some recent reassurance that HPMAs will not be forced onto the fishing communities of Uist, there is still much at stake. The list of requirements our fishermen face is ever growing and the sector simply cannot sustain the onslaught of these restrictions. What we need is a moratorium on all designations, not just HPMAs.”

Since that time, more and more voices have joined the call to put a stop to the Government’s plans, with local band Skippinish evening putting that protest to song.

The HPMA issue and the way in which it has been handled highlights two very important truths. The first is that local papers – really local papers – matter; they offer us a chance to focus on the issues that impact us right here in this community, bringing local voices together to drive change. The second is that protest can and does work; when heads are raised above parapets and voices are joined, we have more power in our hands that we realise.

Local vets launch St Kilda feral sheep petition

Local vets David Buckland and Graham Charlesworth have lodged a petition with the Scottish Parliament in a bid to minimize the level of starvation and associated suffering in the feral sheep of St Kilda.

The sheep in question reside on Hirta, the largest island of the St Kilda archipelago, and were introduced by the then proprietor, the Earl of Dumfries, in 1934, four years after the last human inhabitants were evacuated with their sheep and cattle in 1930.

The Earl moved the animals onto Hirta from neighbouring Soay with a view to establishing a premium wool production enterprise; his plans never came to fruition and, left unmanaged, the population grew steadily, reaching 1,344 in 1960 before crashing dramatically to 610 the following year through starvation and parasitism.

Over the years, numbers have followed a three-to-four year cycle of rapid recovery followed by a crash, with the population fluctuating between 600 and 2,300.

The vets say that the worst crashes see up to 70% of the flock die, with more than 12,000 adults and 4,000 lambs dying in the 20 year period between 2001 and 2010, giving an average mortality of over 800 animals a year.

The petition marks the vets’ final move in what has been an ongoing battle to persuade Scottish Government and the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) to take responsibility for the welfare of the animals.

The vets hope that the petition will move Scottish Government to clarify the definition of protected animals contained in the Animal Health and Welfare (Scotland) Act 2006, with a view to ensuring that the sheep are covered by the legislation.

The issue of whether feral animals – those that have their roots in domestication but are now living as wild – are included in the guidance has been a subject of some controversy.

The guidance states: “Protected animals include the kind of animals whose collective behaviour, life cycle or physiology has been altered as a result of their breeding and living conditions being under human control for multiple generations. Livestock, poultry, horses, cats and dogs are all protected animals whether they are in captivity or living wild as ‘feral’ animals.”

NTS has owned St Kilda since 1957, but disputes ownership of or responsibility for the sheep. A spokesperson for the organisation said: “As a conservation charity, the National Trust for Scotland takes responsibilities relating to animal welfare seriously and always follows relevant legislation. The sheep will continue to be treated as feral animals with a presumption against intervention, except in exceptional circumstances such as a serious outbreak of disease that threatens the sheep populations.”

The sheep are also the subject of the well-established Edinburgh University Soay Sheep Project, set up in 1985 to study ‘population dynamics, evolution and genetics, ageing and parasite infection in a natural setting.’

In their Project overview, the researchers say: “…the Soay sheep population also offers remarkable opportunities for understanding the progress of natural selection and evolution in real time.”

The sheep were originally tagged by researchers in the 1960s, and each year the Edinburgh team round up and count the animals, tagging the lambs to provide a genetic record stretching back over the decades.

The vets point out that a death by starvation and parasitism is not a good one, quoting a description written by the late Ian Cheyne, a vet participating in the early study to illustrate the point:

“In 1964 the grazing was poor; the sheep were weak and emaciated. They were starving. Most of the sheep could be outrun easily by a man, and generally after running for about 50m the sheep would sink to the ground exhausted and distressed. Some sheep would not attempt to run, but stood listlessly with head down on tottering legs waiting to be caught.”

David Buckland and Graham Charlesworth say they have been forced to petition Parliament because all other attempts to resolve the issue have been unsuccessful:

“The starvation and the associated suffering of the sheep on St Kilda represent a failure by the establishment — those very institutions that should be leading the way in animal welfare.

“For a number of years now, in an attempt to garner support for our argument, we have written to or phoned so many politicians and organisations, including: Scottish and UK Ministers, the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission, OneKind, SSPCA, UNESCO, the Home Office, The Veterinary Record, the BBC … all in vain.

“St Kilda is a World Heritage Site and the Soay Sheep Project is world-renowned. We are two old vets who feel like the boy in the Hans Christian Andersen story shouting ‘The Emperor has no clothes’.

“So far no one is choosing to listen.”

The petition remains open for public signatures on the Scottish parliament website until mid May.

Local residents campaign for urgent repairs

The high tide of March 22nd delivered another reminder of the very real risks that rising sea levels bring for our low-lying coastal communities.

Across the islands, bridges and causeways were flooded as high winds added to difficult driving conditions.

In Baleshare, the early morning commute was pretty much impossible, with the causeway connecting the island to North Uist sitting well below the level of the sea. Although debris was cleared soon after, the road remained in a dangerous state for days.

The 350 metre causeway was built in 1962 and residents say the work was never properly completed. A spokesperson for the Baleshare causeway campaign group told Am Pàipear:

“The causeway was built quickly and without much planning. At the time of construction, a culvert arrived on site but was never actually installed, and to this day there is clear evidence that water is just not getting through quickly enough.

“We believe our causeway is the only one in Uist not to have been upgraded. In around 2000, some rocks were placed down one side but many of these have now slipped, leaving large parts of the causeway exposed. The big storm of 2005 had a significant impact on the structure of the causeway, but no repairs have been carried out.”

“Essential carers can’t get to clients who are very much in need of their services. Kids can’t get to school. Police, ambulance and fire services can’t get down. Anyone with a job to go to cannot get to work, and that includes essential home care, NHS, nursery and council staff, impacting not only the Baleshare residents, but also the wider community. Crofters can’t get down to feed livestock. The self employed residents on Baleshare cannot get to work, effectively resulting in a loss of earnings.”

Hopes for an upgrade to the causeway have been dashed following Scottish Government’s rejection of the Comhairle’s Levelling Up Fund bid, which included £8.2m earmarked for the project.

The Comhairle say that financial pressures have made it difficult to stretch budgets to cover what they agree are essential works. They say that the current five year allocation for all transport and infrastructure capital works is £25m; 15 years ago, that figure was around £100m for the same five year period.

Alasdair Allan MSP told Am Pàipear: “While all budgets are of course under extreme pressure at present, it should be noted that the last time any maintenance work was carried out on the Baleshare causeway was in 2000. None of the £100m allocated to the Comhairle in general capital funding over the past 15 years, for example, has been spent on repairs or improvements to this vital infrastructure link. It is now imperative that appropriate resources are identified and directed to urgently address the safety concerns that have been highlighted.”

Residents will be meeting with elected members in April.

In its December issue, Am Pàipear highlighted the risk flooding presents for Uist and the process by which that risk is managed.

The Comhairle’s Flood Risk Management Plan is available to view on their website.

Supplementary Environmental Information published

The long awaited Supplementary Environmental Information (SEI) to the Environmental Impact Report on the Spaceport 1 development was published on the Comhairle’s planning portal at the start of February, kicking off an additional four week period of public consultation.

The submission included more than 100 new documents, ranging from maps, illustrations and photographs to technical reports and surveys.

The Spaceport 1 development at Scolpaig Farm has had a mixed response from the community, with some welcoming the economic value of the project and others citing environmental and cultural heritage concerns.

The developers have set out the beneficial economic impacts associated with both the construction and operation of the site, saying by year three of operation, Spaceport 1 will be providing 23.26 Full-Time Equivalent jobs and generating turnover of £6.45 million.

Those raising objections included the Friends of Scolpaig Tower group, which has campaigned against the development. The Group says it is “fighting to protect this area of exceptional natural beauty and biodiversity from the inappropriate development of a commercial spaceport.”

The Group’s concerns include the impact on the single track road between Carinish and Scolpaig, which will be subject to clearway restrictions during launch periods and will not be upgraded as part of the development.

The location of the development has also proved controversial, as it is sited on Scolpaig Farm, a well-preserved 19th century agricultural holding, and close to Scolpaig Tower and the Iron Age Dun on which it was built.

As part of the SEI requirements, developers were asked to extend their survey work to include a structural assessment of the Tower.

Consultants Harley Haddow were commissioned to undertake the structural survey and the Report they returned makes up part of the SEI submissions.

The Report confirms that a site inspection was carried out in August 22, covering Scolpaig Tower, the Farm and its associated buildings. The surveyors were able to carry out a visual inspection of the outbuildings, ‘externally and internally where possible’, and made their inspection of the Farm itself from the perimeter only. Scolpaig Tower was subject to a ‘visual assessment from loch side only, given the compromised access arrangements, with subsequent photographic/video survey undertaken separately by Fraser Architecture.’

On the question of Scolpaig Tower, the surveyors state that: “Our view is that the tower is highly sensitive, either to wind loads or perhaps even vibration from running traffic or even, say, operatives setting up a scaffolding frame. It may be that the only way to ensure longevity of the tower whilst minimising risk to those operatives charged with the work is to take down the tower, by hand.”

In its response to the consultation last year, the North Uist Community Council summed up community feeling by saying:

“The Community Council recognises that there is divided opinion on the proposal and does not provide judgement in favour of or against the proposal. We do, however, provide the following comments:

“There is strong community desire for creation of sustainable employment to help stem population decline and provide quality employment opportunities. There is, however, some scepticism that the number of projected FTE jobs will materialise and that they will manifest as full-time roles in North Uist or elsewhere in the local area…… The lack of suitable and available housing is a significant problem for businesses trying to recruit staff in the locality. Similar challenges can be envisaged for any job opportunities that are created via the Spaceport…

“The EIA presents arguments of no detrimental environmental impact; there are some community concerns that some detrimental impact could result. There is some concern as to how the safety of activities will be assured, particularly given the experimental nature of some activities…

“There is some concern of the possible impact to fishing activity; although this may only be for a limited number of days a year when there could be contention in short good weather windows…

“We acknowledge there is a sizeable construction phase and would encourage that work is contracted wherever possible to local contractors. It is acknowledged that the lease of Scolpaig Farm for agricultural use is a positive outcome.”

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar acquired the full 687 acres that make up the farm in June 2019. The Farm and the Tower are scheduled monuments.

The Spaceport 1 development is being led by a consortium that includes Comhairle nan Eilean Siar, HIE, QinetiQ, Rhea Group and Commercial Space Technologies Ltd.

Development plans for the Spaceport were first submitted in the summer of 2019 but later withdrawn after more than 600 objections were raised. In November 2021, the developers showcased revised plans for a scaled down project, which generated 223 objections.

As Am Pàipear went to print at the end February, there were only four new responses from members of the public to this new consultation, one neutral and three against.

With the final submissions now returned, the Comhairle’s planning department will review the application proposal and the consultation comments from members of the public and specialist consultees before preparing its report and recommendation for consideration by the Planning Board of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar in due course.

New rules ring alarm bells for Uist drinks producers and retailers

Scottish Government appears to be pushing ahead with its controversial new Deposit Return Scheme (DRS), despite warnings that the Scheme will not be ready by the August launch date.

The new DRS will require all drinks producers and importers to introduce a 20p surcharge on every single-use drinks container sold in Scotland. The charge is passed on through the supply chain, through wholesalers, retailers and hospitality outlets, with consumers finally paying the 20p as a deposit, to be refunded when the drink is returned. This loop is designed to ensure that nobody is out of pocket.

The new rules apply whether or not the drink was manufactured in Scotland, and cover all containers made from PET plastic, glass, steel and aluminium.

With only five months before the scheme’s launch, producers, retailers and hospitality outlets have echoed the findings of the Scottish Government’s own Gateway Review, published in December last year, which stated in the strongest possible terms that the Scheme should be delayed: “The Review Team finds that a fully functioning and compliant DRS cannot be in operation for the revised August 2023 schedule.”

The DRS was subject to an Islands Impact Assessment in March 2020, which highlighted a number of island-specific impacts that would result form the new regulations.

The Assessment recognises the logistical difficulties in transporting waste/recyclables off the islands, but states: “Most islands are net importers of goods and therefore vehicles leaving the islands should have available capacity to back-haul materials to the mainland.” Concerns have been raised regarding ferry capacity, especially in the busy summer months.

The Assessment also noted a potential issue with ‘distance sales take-back’ and the requirement for producers, importers and wholesalers to be responsible for collecting returned containers, regardless of where they are sold. In practice, this means that those drinks sold in Uist are going to cost a lot more to return than those sold in Glasgow. The additional costs associated with distance sellers operating a take-back service, could result in a number of businesses choosing not to deliver to the islands.

With a resident population of less than 27,000 and annual visitor numbers well in excess of 200,000, the Assessment also recognised that ‘the number of containers likely to be returned to retailers would significantly exceed the volumes being sold, creating challenges around both storage of returned containers and cash-flow related to the paying out of deposits.’

The Assessment concludes: “We are confident that the policy does not only look to accommodate islands communities but is optimised for them. The overall impact will be significantly positive, supporting the development of a circular economy, acting to address the climate crisis, and preventing litter and plastic pollution escaping into our natural environment.”

The Scheme was developed by Zero Waste Scotland, is to be administered by Circulatory Scotland and will be regulated by SEPA.

Circularity Scotland is a membership organisation set up by industry stakeholders to manage the operation of the Scheme on their behalf. Its role is to take on producer responsibilities for the collection and recycling of returned materials and effectively ‘administer’ the Scheme. Under pressure from industry, Circulatory Scotland last month announced £22 million of cashflow support measures to help Scotland’s manufacturers prepare for the introduction of the Scheme.

SEPA is the regulator for the DRS, carrying out audits, inspections and enforcement activity.
Scottish Government says that 90% of containers included in the Scheme will be captured for recycling, resulting in 34,000 fewer plastic bottles littered every day, with 76,000 additional tonnes of containers recycled each year.

A spokesperson for the Comhairle said:

“Once the DRS system is fully up and running in the Western Isles, it should help our recycling rates and reduce what we have to collect, bale and pay to be shipped to the mainland.

“The Comhairle has been in contact with Biffa and have offered to assist where we can in making this scheme a success.

“Recycling plastic containers in an Island location is costly due to the haulage costs, so this scheme is welcomed.

“We would hope that all consumers of drinks included in DRS will return containers and get their deposit back.  It will still be counted towards the household recycling figures in the Western Isles and there is an expectation of a much higher capture rate which can only be a good thing for the environment.  We expect to have to review how we collect the remaining recyclable materials but will still provide kerbside collection services.”

Highlands & Islands MSP Ariane Burgess has welcomed the new Scheme, telling Am Pàipear: “I am very excited about the Deposit Return Scheme, which will be a major part of Scotland’s efforts to reduce litter, cut emissions and build a more sustainable economy.

“I understand that implementing DRS is a big change for small businesses to manage, which is why a range of measures have been put in place to support them. For example, there will be no registration fee for producers with an annual turnover of £85,000 or lower. A producer will be charged for each individual container placed upon the Scottish market, so their charges will be proportionate to the size of the business meaning a small producer like a small distiller will pay less than a larger producer.

“This will be the first scheme of its kind in the UK and one of the most environmentally ambitious and accessible in Europe. It will be good for people and planet and it will help us to improve recycling rates – even in areas like Na h-Eileanan an Iar already well known for their efficiency – as well as helping to tackle climate change.

“I am proud that the scheme is being led by Green minister Lorna Slater, who has taken a pragmatic and ambitious approach, supported by industry through Circularity Scotland, and am confident it will be launched in August.”

A spokesperson for the Co-op, said: “We are facing into a climate and environmental crisis and Co-op is committed to making it easier for our members, customers and colleagues to take action that makes a positive difference to our natural environment. As a business we are working hard so we will be ready for the introduction of the Scottish Government’s Deposit Return Scheme.” 

As Am Pàipear went to print, it was still unclear if the Scheme would launch as scheduled.

Uist recycling:
Household and commercial waste in Uist and Barra is collected at the premises and taken to the Market Stance Waste Transfer Station, in Benbecula.

Materials for recycling are compacted to reduce volume and loaded onto lorries for transportation direct to mainland recycling facilities.

Market Stance processes around five loads of glass each year, each weighing around 20 to 25 tonnes, and a similar volume of plastic and cans, each weighing around 20 tonnes.

Around 100 tonnes of non recyclable waste is compacted and taken to Stornoway for landfill, where it is subject to a £98 per tonne Landfill Tax charge.

All in all, more than 740 tonnes of materials were recycled through Market Stance last year.

Despite the islands’ logistical disadvantage, Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s recycling rates for 2021 were 34.6%, placing us slightly below the Scottish average and well ahead of some bigger Authorities such as Glasgow City Council.

New restrictions set to ban fishing and fish farming in designated areas

Scottish Government has set out plans to designate 10% of Scottish waters as Highly Protected Marine Areas (HPMAs).

HPMAs will restrict all marine-based human activity, effectively banning all types of commercial fishing and fish farming.

The policy lists a range of other activities that will be prohibited under the new rules, including: non-commercial and recreational fishing; hand gathering and diving; collection by any method of flora, fauna and natural materials, including crustaceans, molluscs, seaweed, fossils, shells, rocks, sediments, seagrass or algae; activities associated with oil and gas exploration and production; activities associated with renewable energy production; and aggregate extraction. Boats will not be permitted to lay anchor, but ferries will be allowed to pass through.

The policy provides reassurance that: “Carefully managed recreational activities may still be allowed at non-damaging levels.”

The proposals will now be subject to public consultation before the location of the new designations are announced in 2026.

Launching the plans at the COP15 Biodiversity Summit in Montreal in December, Environment Minister Mairi McAllan said: “Scotland has some of the most beautiful and diverse marine ecosystems on the planet and we are committed to safeguarding them.

“Scotland’s MPA network extends to over a third of our seas, and I am today setting out how we intend to go even further by designating at least 10% of our seas as Highly Protected Marine Areas – a world-leading commitment.”

Fishing bodies have already expressed strong opposition. Elspeth Macdonald, Chief Executive of the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, said: “HPMAs are an exercise in government greenwashing. There is no justifiable scientific rationale for their introduction or any evidence whatsoever that they will achieve their very vague aims.

“The speed at which the Scottish Government intends to bring in these restrictions – first signalled out of the blue, without any consultation, in the Bute House Agreement – is totally unsuitable relative to the scale of the potential impact on fishing.

“The fishing industry has no objection to meaningful conservation and indeed has been an active and supportive partner in developing the MPA network, but it is vitally important that we understand what we are conserving and why, and how we assess the contribution of restrictions to the objectives in question.”

Kilbride Shellfish Ltd is based at Ludag, and operates as a co-operative to support around 20 local catchers using static pots for crab and prawn. Director Angus Campbell told Am Pàipear that if HPMAs were imposed on Hebridean waters, the impact would be devastating.

Angus is also Chair of the Western Isles Fisherman’s Association, and says the proposals now on the table have caused alarm across the islands: “HPMAs pose the biggest threat to local fishing in a generation. The community engagement exercise that Marine Scotland ran before introducing local MPAs in 2014 ignored the views of the community. We fully expect that the consultation now running for the HPMAs will follow a similar pattern.

“The Western Isles has the largest number of registered shellfish vessels anywhere in Scotland. The HPMA ban on all fishing would have a disproportionate impact on islanders and we hope that some protection can be given to our fishing fleet within the Islands (Scotland) Act.”

Local fish farms would also be impacted by the new restrictions. Tavish Scott, Chief Executive of Salmon Scotland, said: “Marine biodiversity is vitally important, and this can be achieved through responsible stewardship of our seas. Simply putting up barriers to companies and preventing responsible management of the sea threatens jobs in fragile coastal communities.

“If we reduce our competitiveness, businesses will simply turn their attention to our Scandinavian competitors.

“There should be a focus on evidence and balance, and the case has simply not been made for HPMAs.

“Sustainable growth of the Scottish salmon sector is crucial for coastal communities, where the local salmon farm is often at the heart of the community and the main employer, as well as for the wider economy and the Scottish Government’s vision for the country.”

Ariane Burgess, Scottish Greens MSP for the Highlands and Islands, set out the case for HPMAs, saying: “Important marine habitats have declined across all of Scotland’s waters due to pressures including bottom-contacting fishing and aquaculture, and 46% of our fish populations are overfished, according to Scotland’s Marine Assessment 2020.

“HPMAs will help turn this around and allow Scotland to play its part in achieving the global target to protect at least 30% of the world’s land and sea by 2030.”

“The views of local fishers, other coastal businesses in Uist and community groups such as Clean Coast Outer Hebrides will be crucial to ensure the designations are effective and workable. The next stages including site designation will be progressed in close cooperation with coastal communities, and I encourage everyone to respond to the consultation which is out now.”

Alasadair Allan MSP told Am Pàipear: “It is important to stress that no sites have been selected yet. As the Scottish Government’s Partial Island Communities Impact Assessment Screening Report notes, the vulnerability of island communities where employment is dominated by both fisheries and aquaculture is likely to be a key consideration.

“Fishing continues to play a vital role in economies like Uist. It is important that designations of any kind recognise the importance of the sector to our goals around island economic growth and population retention.”

The waters around the Western Isles are already subject to stringent restrictions under current Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and other conservation designations. Additional limitations are also expected to be imposed by the proposed Special Area of Conservation in the Sound of Barra, which Comahirle nan Eilean Siar has said would have a devastating impact on the local economies of both Uist and Barra.

Scottish Government has said that the new HPMAs will: “Complement and add value to the existing MPA network…HPMAs may overlap either fully or partially with existing MPAs in order to maximise the conservation benefits associated with stricter management approaches in a particular geographic location. HPMAs may also be located outside the current MPA network.”

Government published statistics state that the Scottish fishing fleet landed 437,000 tonnes of fish and shellfish in 2021, with a gross value of £560m. Almost one third of that value was derived from nephrops and other shellfish. In the Western Isles, the catching sector generates over £12m.

Marine Scotland’s Scottish Fish farm Production Survey lists a total aquaculture value of well over £1billion, with the Western Isles alone valued at over £161 million.|

The Scottish Government Seaweed Review Group reports that seaweed harvesting currently generates £4m turnover in Scotland, with a substantial opportunity for growth.

The public consultation is available on the Scottish Government website at and will close on March 20th.

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.