Estate’s timber plans will harm ‘internationally important’ Highland beauty spot, say NatureScot

An “internationally important” Highland beauty spot could be harmed by plans to remove 120,000 tonnes of timber from nearby woodland, the Scottish Government’s wildlife agency has warned.

The Singing Sands, on the Ardnamurchan peninsula in the west Highlands, is a popular spot for locals and tourists which has been listed as one of Scotland’s best beaches.

But locals and NatureScot have warned against Ardnamurchan Estate’s plans to build a timber transfer area, forest track, bridge and floating steel pier to extract wood by ship from neighbouring Gorteneorn Forest. The 30,000 estate, which makes up much of the peninsula, is owned by Donald Houston, a wealthy businessman.

Its proposals could impact the Sound of Arisaig, a designated Special Area of Conservation (SAC), NatureScot said. Local residents and a community council warned the works could ruin the scenic area – a popular spot for activities like walking, swimming, kayaking, sailing and scuba diving.

The project will make the beach harder to access, harm and deter wildlife with noise and vibrations, hit local businesses and ruin forest tracks with heavy trucks, they argue.

The plans have undergone ecological and other assessments, which have been submitted to Highland Council. Submissions by the estate’s planning agent state the project would not affect access and forest tracks would be upgraded as part of the works.

The agent estimated the pier would be used during “no more than four seasons in the next 10” and it would “be between 35 and 40 years” before more timber was harvested. Some 143 trees would be felled, but around 130 native broadleaf trees would be planted to shield sight of the works from the Singing Sands and its access points.

Area ‘threatened’ by landowners’ ‘commercial interests’

The Singing Sands’ name comes from the sound created when wind or the movement of feet sweep the surface of the beach, according to Wild Lochaber. It says the shape and size of the sand grains and silica content causes the sand to “sing” in the right humidity.

Also known as Camas an Lighe, the Singing Sands adjoins the Cul na Croise beach, which was the location of the Channel 4 survival reality show, Eden: Paradise Lost. The beach overlooks the Small Isles of Eigg and Rum and is of high conservation interest due to its acidic dune grassland, heath and mobile sand dunes.

The Sound of Arisaig has SAC status due to its subtidal sandbanks, which NatureScot says have an “unusually high diversity” of habitats “within a relatively small area”. The sandbanks act as nursery grounds for fish and shellfish, and protect maerl (a type of algae) and seagrass beds, both of which are deemed to be threatened and declining habitats.

Protecting the sandbanks will help Scotland in “restoring marine and coastal ecosystems” and in adapting to climate change, the wildlife agency added.

The estate’s plans are “likely to have a significant effect” on the sandbanks, NatureScot told the council in March. “Consequently, the Highland Council as competent authority, is required to carry out an appropriate assessment in view of the site’s conservation objectives”.

It called for a seabed survey of the development, and for a damage mitigation plan if the pier coincides with maerl or seagrass beds. “If the planning authority intends to grant planning permission against this advice without the suggested mitigation you must notify Scottish Ministers,” NatureScot stressed.

It added that the application would not impact the National Scenic Area of Morar, Moidart and Ardnamurchan and was “unlikely” to impact the Inner Hebrides and the Minches SAC, both of which encompass the beach.

Restoring the diversity of Highland forests and coastlines is vital to the national effort to tackle the climate and nature emergencies

Ariane Burgess MSP

The Scottish Greens’ rural affairs spokesperson Ariane Burgess MSP said: “Restoring the diversity of Highland forests and coastlines is vital to the national effort to tackle the climate and nature emergencies, as well as a crucial part of what makes the Highlands so attractive as a tourist destination.

“It is therefore unacceptable for Special Areas of Conservation to be threatened by the commercial interests of landowners, and I urge Highland Council to accept its responsibilities in this case.”

The council said the planning application was still under consideration. It had requested a seabed survey from Ardnamurchan Estate and its planning agent, as recommended by NatureScot in March, but this had not yet been submitted.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency said it had “no objection” to the plans while Marine Scotland said it did “not intend to comment” on the application.

‘Peaceful, unspoilt and remote’

Local residents used Highland Council’s planning page to raise concerns about the development.

Madeleine McQueen said her family had owned neighbouring property since 1973 and fears “an area of outstanding beauty will be lost forever” if the proposal is approved. “I have seen otters in the wild, playing with their pups,” she said.

Charles McQueen highlighted NatureScot’s description of the Singing Sands as “peaceful, unspoilt and remote” and warned “industrial plant noise” would “undoubtedly” be heard on the beach.

Co-owner of the Loch Shiel Hotel, Charles Ruairidh Roome, said he feared the estate’s plans would damage tourism and local businesses.

Acharacle Community Council raised concerns about the project’s environmental impact and potential restrictions to access. It called for a search for munitions as it said “regular instances of WW2 devices” had been found in the area. 

Wild Arnamurchan’s website warns that the beach and surrounding area may contain unexploded munitions due to being used for commando training during the Second World War.

Photo © Becky Williamson (cc-by-sa/2.0)

Locals have also raised fears about potential access issues at the Singing Sands.

The Ferret revealed on 30 May that the former leader of Highland Council and fellow Ardnamurchan residents accused the estate and its owner, Donald Houston, of breaching outdoor access legislation. They said the estate had locked gates on walking routes, which it is claimed have been used for generations.

The estate did not respond to an invitation to comment on the claims, but in a previous application for new woodland said there was “an open access policy over the whole estate.”

Local resident Dr David Kime previously told The Ferret Houston reported him and his wife, Jenny, for aggravated trespass in 2019 after walking a path they had enjoyed without issue for over 40 years. Walking charity Ramblers Scotland called the situation “unprecedented” and “worrying”. However, the Procurator Fiscal took no action.

The Kimes told the council the estate’s forestry plans should not be approved until it “permanently re-opens” locked gates elsewhere on the peninsula.

The council’s local access officer told colleagues the new proposed development’s boundary incorporates part of a local core path, which must “remain open and free from obstruction or encroachment before, during and on completion of the development.”

Arvikaconsult Ltd, the estate’s agent for the project, stated in its application that public access would not be impacted. Existing forest tracks would be upgraded but the plans would require the felling of 143 trees to create a new 6 metre-wide roadline through the woods.

Some 130 native broadleaf trees would be planted to shield sight of the works and any felling would be subject to a Scottish Forestry Environmental Impact determination, according to a tree survey of the site.

The pier is intended for use between March and the end of October, although this may be extended due to harvesting programmes, timber export constraints and “market conditions,” Arvikaconsult said. The pier would be removed when not in use.

Specialist haulage systems, capable of moving three to four times more timber than regular trucks, would be used to carry wood to the floating pier, it added. This would lead to fewer trips, and cause less road damage, environmental harm and noise.

Ardnamurchan Estate and Arvikaconsult Ltd did not respond to our requests to comment.

Header image credit: Odd Wellies

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