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Environment / RSPB adds to concern over spaceport’s potential impact on birds

Lamba Ness in Unst where Shetland Space Centre proposes to build a commercial satellite launch base. Photo: Shetland Space Centre
Lamba Ness in Unst where Shetland Space Centre proposes to build a commercial satellite launch base. Photo: Shetland Space Centre

THE RSPB is the latest organisation to express worry over the possible impact satellite launches in Unst could have on birdlife and protected species on the island.

RSPB Scotland has initially objected to plans for Shetland Space Centre’s launch facility at Lamba Ness because of “potential impacts of rocket launch noise on breeding, protected birds”.

However, it said it objected until further information is provided showing a detailed appraisal of potential impacts on the Hermaness, Saxa Vord and Valla Field Special Protection Area (SPA), which is classified for a range of breeding seabirds and breeding red-throated driver.

It comes after public body NatureScot also issued similar concerns.

Bird protection charity RSPB Scotland said it recognised the potential for the “innovative” space centre to spark economic development and job creation in Unst.

“However, the importance of Unst for birds and other wildlife is also well recognised by local residents and visitors, and wildlife tourism is a significant contributor to the local economy,” it added.

The Hermaness National Nature Reserve for instance, at the northern tip of Unst, plays host to thousands of seabirds, including fulmars, gulls, shags, gannets, puffins and kittiwakes.

The charity claims there is insufficient information provided in the planning application’s environmental impact assessment to “enable a full and robust assessment to be carried out” to conclude with certainty that there will be no adverse impact on the special protection area.

It said that additional information should be requested from the applicant.

The RSPB’s response said that the SPA and Saxa Vord site of special scientific interest (SSSI) are around 3.79km from one of the proposed launch pads.

It claimed the applicant “appears to rely solely” on NatureScot’s response to a planning application for a spaceport in Sutherland in the Highlands with respect to noise.

The RSPB notes that the impact of loud noise on densely packed colonies of cliff nesting birds, such as those found in Unst, could be “very different” compared to the effect on ground nesting birds in Sutherland.

A breeding birds protection plan is proposed by the applicant, but the RSPB recommended that a breeding bird monitoring programme is included.

The charity also touched on climate change impacts, calling for further measures to offset carbon emissions, “such as the identification of additional areas for [peatland] restoration”.

“Alternatively, other measures to offset the carbon impacts should be presented,” it added.

“Given the climate emergency we are facing, it is crucial that the construction and operation of the proposed spaceport can be justified in the context of targets to achieve net zero emissions.”

Referring to the plans for the spaceport in Sutherland as well as Unst, the RSPB also said that it is “concerned a national strategic approach has not been taken in considering and identifying the best location for such proposals”.

NatureScot’s submission, meanwhile, called for the suspension of rocket launches between mid-May and the end of June due the possible impact on breeding birds.

A Shetland Space Centre spokesperson previously said that “as with any large planning application, we expect a wide range of comments from interested parties”.

“Once we have received them all, we will assess them in the round and respond in detail.”

Shetland Space Centre said that the launch facility will ultimately create around 140 jobs in Unst and “inject at least £4.9 million per annum into the island’s economy”.

It will provide a further 70 jobs throughout Shetland, it said, adding a further £2.9 million in gross value per annum to the economy.

The space centre team said the plans are supported by a “thorough and extremely comprehensive” environmental impact assessment report.