COUNTRYSIDE ISSUES WITH JOHN CRAVEN
Will a proposed new spaceport in the Highlands put local wildlife at risk?
“Any development needs to be done with the utmost care”
Eagles ride the fierce winds that sweep over the peatbogs of the A’Mhoine peninsula in Scotland’s far north. But soon another spectacular sighting could be competing with those of golden raptors: satellites blasting into orbit from the UK’s first spaceport.
Can you imagine two greater contrasts than the solitude of this bleak, empty landscape and the 2lst-century excitement of a space launch? The few hundred people who live along the Kyle of Tongue, not far from the proposed site in the county of Sutherland, certainly found it hard to believe. “Why here, of all places?” they asked. After all, it is at the western end of the Flow Country, the largest area of blanket bog in the Northern Hemisphere. The answer, according to the UK Space Agency, is it’s the best spot in Britain to launch small satellites by rocket into in-demand orbits.
The community is divided over the £17 million project; should it get the go-ahead and bring much-needed jobs and a boost to the local economy, or be opposed in order to protect one of Britain’s few remaining totally wild places from potential harm?
A group of crofters who own the land where the development agency Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) would like to build the spaceport has agreed, by 27 votes to 18, to start negotiations over a lease. “The onus will be on HIE to demonstrate a sensitivity towards safety and the environment,” said Dorothy Pritchard, the crofters’ leader. A protest group has also formed. Its chairman John Williams told me: “We think the drawbacks are far more serious and longer lasting than any possible benefits. If you destroy peatland by putting roads across it, concrete in it and rockets on it, the damage will last for hundreds or thousands of years. And what happens if something goes wrong with one of the launches? We will make sure the planning authority knows this application is not unopposed.”
The RSPB is also keeping close watch. “The possibility of Scotland being at the vanguard of the developing space industry is a hugely exciting prospect,” said its spokesman James Reynolds. “But it shouldn’t be forgotten that Sutherland is a really important habitat with incredible species, including eagles and red- and blackthroated divers – stunning birds that are rightly protected. Add to these dunlin, golden plover, hen harrier, merlin and shorteared owl and it becomes obvious that any development needs to be done with the utmost care. We are confident the relevant authorities will have this in mind.”
With the first launches pencilled in for 2021 and at monthly intervals afterwards, HIE’s project director Roy Kirk has stepped up his contact with the locals. “It’s understandable that people have concerns as well as hopes and we’ll be discussing with them all the issues, from jobs and other economic benefits to safety and the environment,” he said, stressing that the footprint of the spaceport would be small, with a diameter of perhaps 400 metres and a three-kilometrelong access road. The project, he hopes, will reverse the trend of young people leaving the area in search of work. Forty jobs would be created at the spaceport and 400 more in the wider economy.
If planners give their approval, visitors will soon be focusing their binoculars on rockets as well as raptors and, inevitably, this special place will have lost some of its pristine magic.
Golden eagles may be sharing airspace with rockets launching micro-satellites into orbit from this proposed spaceport