Countryfile Magazine - - Contents - 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

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