Island sold by National Trust of ‘considerable’ conservation importance

A west coast island sold off by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) should be maintained and monitored in the long-term due to its considerable scientific interest and nature conservation importance, according to an ecological survey.

The Ferret revealed earlier in October that the Isle of Insh, off the Argyll coast, was bequeathed to NTS by the island’s cave-dwelling former owner. The trust then sold off Insh after assessing its heritage.

This prompted fierce criticism from local politicians who argued that NTS should have consulted locals, heritage and environment bodies, and allowed for the option of a community buyout.

Now, a survey has been obtained by The Ferret which found the island to be home to “a high diversity” of 180 species after having been “hardly disturbed” for around 35 years.

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The study was conducted in 2013 by Ian Strachan, a scientific advisor to the West Highland Coastal Trust, now the Highlands and Islands Environment Foundation.

According to Strachan, Insh presents “a rare situation in the Hebrides, particularly combined with the lack of disturbance and the virtual absence of non-native species”. A “long period without stock and deer has enabled elements which are normally restricted by grazing and browsing to develop and flourish”, he said.

Strachan recommended that Insh “should be maintained and long-term monitoring set up to assess changes in the vegetation and diversity.” The island is also part of the Firth of Lorn Designated Special Area of Conservation due to its reefs and seabed habitats, “so the shoreline is likely to be rich”, Strachan added.

“Insh island is of considerable scientific interest and nature conservation importance with a high diversity of species represented in a relatively small area”, Strachan concluded.

In conservation terms, [Insh] is valuable for both the diversity of habitats and for a relatively long species list for such a small area.

Professor Robin Pakeman

The Ferret shared the survey with Professor Robin Pakeman, a plant ecologist at The James Hutton Institute. He claimed that while Insh did not have any features of great individual significance, “the range of habitats for such a small island is remarkable”. Pakeman added: “So in conservation terms, it is valuable for both the diversity of habitats and for a relatively long species list for such a small area.”

Pakeman said that while he was not aware of comparable data from similar-sized islands, the 180 species identified on Insh “compares favourably” with the 200 species known to the much bigger archipelago of St Kilda, an NTS-owned world heritage site.

Gleann Mor on Hirta, St Kilda. The archipelago is home to 200 species, compared to 180 on Insh. Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

One of the recorded species on Insh, the Grayling butterfly, is declining in population and has been deemed a conservation priority, Pakeman highlighted.

“The fact that Insh has long gone without being grazed by livestock means that some species may be much more abundant than in comparable grazed habitats on the mainland”, Pakeman added. “Scientifically speaking, it is of interest because it gives an indication of what rewilding might look like from a west coast perspective.

“The development of the habitats on the island perhaps show what the abandonment of grazing would do to some of the more exposed areas of Scotland if current agricultural trends continue.”

The Scottish Greens’ Highlands and Islands MSP John Finnie said it was “quite astonishing that NTS decided to dispose of Insh, given that the island is so rich in biodiversity, noted for its significant scientific interest and nature conservation importance.” He added: “It appears that earning a quick buck has been prioritised over conserving this remarkable island.”

NTS should have ‘consulted with local opinion’

Insh was left in the care of NTS by the island’s former owner, David Brearley, when he died in 2016. Brearley had reportedly lived in a cave on the island for around 30 years. NTS, which has long suffered financial hardships, later auctioned Insh with a guide price of £125,000 in 2019, before it was sold for £353,000.

The Scottish Greens and Argyll and Bute MSP, Michael Russell, criticised the trust’s decision, partly because Brearley wanted Insh to stay natural. Russell, The Oban Times and a local Argyll resident, all said the former owner wanted Insh to “stay untouched as nature intended”.

Russell argued that NTS should have consulted local people, national heritage and environment bodies, and allowed for the option of a community buyout. After The Ferret revealed that NTS had sold off Insh, the community council for nearby inhabited islands of Seil and Easdale told the Oban Times that it “would have been nice” for locals to be informed.

Brearley’s will does not include any conditions for the island’s use. NTS also said it had not received any other documentation specifying Brearley’s wishes.

The island and its heritage significance, as well as potential costs for care, were discussed and it was decided that it did not meet our criteria to take into care.

National Trust for ScotlAND

The trust told The Ferret that “a paper on the island and its heritage significance, as well as potential costs for care, were discussed and it was decided that it did not meet our criteria to take into care”. However, it was “not possible to provide a copy of the paper”, a NTS spokesperson said.

The island’s new owner is West Coast Heritage Limited, a company which was incorporated in December 2019 and focuses on “holiday centres and villages”. A spokesperson for Mackman said that “the general plan for the island was to harvest seaweed”, but “these plans have been shelved for the time being.”

Alistair Whyte, head of Plantlife Scotland, said: “We hope the new owners of the Isle of Insh will follow the example of good landowners across Scotland and protect the ecology of this special place.”

Insh Island 2013 ecological survey

Header image thanks to Daniel Naczk, CC BY-SA 4.0.

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