Having heard nothing on this for so long, we now have a significant amount of information to process regarding this proposed scheme, with CALLP minutes now available, information being sourced under FOI from Nature Scot and from Scottish Forestry on the scheme, and Scottish Forestry then deciding to call the scheme in for a full Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).
If you are unfamiliar with the background of the Eisg Brachaidh fencing project, please see our previous write-ups on the subject:
An overview of the unconsulted publicly funded £400k+ fencing project
The findings from the initial FOI request reveal anomalies in the funding process and plans for a huge cull for deer trapped within fence boundaries
Within the CALLP minutes, it is notable that in the early spring of last year, attendees were being urged to maintain continued confidentiality about the scheme, making a mockery of claims that everyone was fully consulted and informed. We know that this project was being kept under wraps simply because no-one knew about it.
The FOI material obtained covers the period from September last year through to the present. We can see the schedule slipping, Woodland Trust trying to assure everyone that things where still on course, and Nature Scot becoming increasingly nervous and unsure about the project. It is clear that what was required to deliver such a project was grossly under-estimated by all concerned, and the schedule was unrealistic. Eisg Brachaidh was put forwards as a “shovel ready” project when it was nothing of the sort.
Within the FOI material there is a statement that Eisg Bracdaidh is simply a prelude to a “much bigger project”. It is not good to spread rumours, but you do wonder what this might be. Is something really big planned for Assynt Foundation land, something that is being kept confidential as well by these groups who are supposedly acting in the local community interest? We do have to start asking questions about this before something else gets too far developed and causes even more controversy.
The FOI material from Scottish Forestry shows that they had been contacted by 38 organizations and individuals. Only one was supportive of the scheme. All the rest were either against the scheme, or wanted significant appraisal of options to be looked at before anything could take place. Few people could see what the problem actually was. Those who could thought it could be addressed in a different manner.
The one supportive response came from the RSPB. They were warmly in favour of habitat restoration, but their response then goes on to mention the many protected bird species present, the need of some of them to move back and forth between the lochs and the open sea to feed, and the importance of making sure that the fences do not create a risk of bird strike. They also mention the importance of a wide buffer zone between fences and the water, but no buffer strip exists in many areas, and no risk assessment in relation to bird strike has been undertaken. Even the untrained mind would suspect that this is indeed one of the more substantive risks associated with the project.
Scottish Forestry calling the project in for full EIA is massive news, and the opportunity we require to restart the process properly. Scottish Forestry have deemed that information provided by the Woodland Trust is not sufficient to allow them to determine if the project is suitable for the area or not.
The list of queries is enormous. Indeed, the letter setting out Scottish Forestry concerns is as damning as you are likely to get. It certainly makes you feel that this project will not now go ahead. There are too many issues to address, and the cost of evaluating these will be enormous.
The proposal is deemed not to give sufficient detail on how regeneration areas relate to non-woodland protected habitats and if these are suitable for woodland regeneration. It doesn’t set out why the whole area must be enclosed, and points out that most of the habitats are already in favourable or recovering condition. There is no mention of previous Section 7 agreement or how that worked.
Bird and mammal surveys have not been completed. A breeding bird survey can only now be done in spring 2022 at the earliest, so this effectively pushes the project at least another year down the tracks. It is unlikely that the funding offer from Nature Scot will last that long, and this will probably be what sees the back of this project.
There is no analysis of effects on neighbours. There is no analysis on whether regeneration can take place in the presence of deer and livestock within the enclosure. The proposal does not consider the cumulative impact of fencing within the area.
The analysis relating to deer is very poor. Analysis on the effects on access is poor. The analysis of landscape impacts is only partial. Alternatives to the current proposal had been dismissed.
The outcomes of discussions with other agencies are not covered, and neither are the views of those who do not support the scheme.
The Scottish Forestry letter concludes,
“We considered the size and design of the forestry project could have complex, long term or irreversible impacts on the environmental sensitivity of the area, with particular regard to its biodiversity and landscape.”
Scottish Forestry have advised that the Woodland Trust convene an online scoping meeting with Nature Scot, Highland Council, Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), Historic Environment Scotland, West Sutherland Deer Management Group, Assynt Foundation, Inver & Kirkain Fishings Estate, Inverpolly Estate, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Assynt Community Council, Coigach Community Council, Ramblers Scotland, Mountaineering Scotland, Scottish Canoe Association and RSPB Scotland.
The meeting is to take place on Thursday 24th June. All will then have the opportunity to input their thoughts.
A rational person might conclude that there are too many issues to address here and that this project will not go any further, but there are no certainties in this.
You can find the additional FOI information and the Scottish Forestry EIA determination letter in the Downloads section of this page.
Both are well worth reading.