Sound of Barra to be given protected status

Fuidheigh, Sound of Barra The Sound of Barra has been described as one of "Scotland's wildlife jewels"

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The Sound of Barra in the Western Isles is be designated a site of Special Area of Conservation (SAC).

The Scottish government said the move would protect a pristine marine environment and give its wildlife and habitats international recognition.

Local fishermen and Rory MacNeil, chief of Clan MacNeil of Barra, opposed plans for SAC status fearing it would restrict fishing.

People from Barra protested outside the Scottish Parliament last February.

Start Quote

Sound of Barra is a diverse and precious environment”

End Quote Paul Wheelhouse Environment Minister

The government's decision follows an independent review examining the scientific case for the designation.

The Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) backed the SAC plans, describing the Sound of Barra as one of "Scotland's wildlife jewels".

It said the area's sandbanks, reefs and harbour seal habitats needed greater protection.

SWT also said the area contained possibly the largest beds in the UK of the coral-like seaweed, maerl.

Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse visited the Western Isles earlier this year to listen to the local community and hear their concerns, the government said.

As a result of these meetings the new SAC will be managed using an "innovative majority community-led approach" that will draw on local knowledge.

The SAC's original proposed boundary has also been changed and now no longer includes Barra's beach airport.

Sound of Barra will now be put forward to the European Commission for inclusion in plans for an EU-wide network of SACs.

SACs fact file

  • Special Areas of Conservation are designated under the European Union's Habitats Directive to protect rare and threatened species and habitats of European importance
  • The Scottish government has the responsibility of implementing the directive in Scotland
  • Wildlife to be given greater protection in the Sound of Barra include beds of seagrass, maerl and Europe's most north westerly colony of harbour seals
  • Scotland already has SACs protecting coastal lagoons, estuaries around Scotland and bottlenose dolphin habitat in the Moray Firth

Mr Wheelhouse said: "Thanks to generations of careful stewardship by the local community, Sound of Barra is a diverse and precious environment, home to important seal populations with reefs and sandbanks that support many species.

"The concerns of the local community have been taken into consideration and we will be implementing a new bottom up approach to the management structure to ensure as much local involvement as possible."

He added: "The scientific case for designation as a Special Area of Conservation has been found to be robust and that's why, after careful consideration, I've decided to accept the proposal."

'Some restrictions'

Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) advised the government on the scientific case for the designation and recommended that the sound be submitted to the European Commission for the designation.

In a statement, it said: "We recognise the strong opposition from within the local community and continue to do so. However, our role was to advise on the scientific case for designation."

SWT has welcomed the government's decision.

Living seas policy officer Alex Kinninmonth said: "It is imperative for Scotland's wildlife, economy and international reputation that our most significant natural assets are given the fullest protection and the Sound of Barra is certainly one of Scotland's wildlife jewels.

"However, designation is only the first step as the site must be well-managed.

"This will inevitably mean some restrictions, but low impact activities compatible with the new protected status will be allowed to continue and should thrive in the long term."

Harbour seal Seals are among the species the status aims to offer greater protection

But the proposal to give the sound SAC status had met with strong opposition from islanders.

Clan chief Mr MacNeil also accused government ministers and SNH of ignoring local concerns.

He said islanders had worked with the environment for hundreds of years.

'Faceless bureaucrats'

Western Isles SNP MP Angus MacNeil said the government had been forced to designate the Sound of Barra.

He said: "It has been a brainwave of faceless bureaucrats in the EU, who have shown disdain for the areas and communities involved by not even sending the most junior person from Brussels involved with this, to explain to the communities their reasoning and why they would potentially fine the Scottish government if there was no SAC."

"That said, the SAC that has been imposed on the Sound of Barra, has been tempered as much as possible by the Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse."

The islands' SNP MSP Alasdair Allan said: "This has been a very long running saga indeed, and it is of course no secret that people in Barra made very clear their opposition to this designation."

He added: "There are things in the announcement today which reflect a great deal of hard work by the community."

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