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Community / Work expected to start on new Fair Isle Bird Observatory next year after £2.35m funding boost

Subject to planning consent, construction work could get under way as early as summer 2022. Image: Colin Armstrong Architects

THE PROJECT to build a new Fair Isle Bird Observatory has received a funding boost worth more than £2 million.

The hope is that construction work could get underway in summer 2022, subject to planning consent, before opening in spring 2023.

The new funding, totalling £2.35 million, is coming from Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE) and the Scottish Government.

It comes after the previous bird observatory burnt down in 2019.

Last year, the project to build a new observatory stalled after the tender for the work came back far too expensive, causing the Fair Isle Bird Observatory Trust (FIBOT) to rethink its plans.

The latest plan is for a modular building which will largely be constructed off Fair Isle. It has been designed by Colin Armstrong Architects.

The £7.4 million project will create seven new “green” jobs and support the community’s aspirations to become carbon neutral by 2040, HIE said.

The development aims to create a sustainable and energy efficient building, using power from the island’s community-owned renewable energy grid as well as from the building’s own solar panels.

The observatory was first established in 1948 and it has played a vital role in sustaining the population of Fair Isle, which is located roughly halfway between Orkney and Shetland and currently has a population of around 50.

As well as being a popular visitor attraction for bird watchers, the observatory has had an important research role, gathering bird census and migration data for the past 70 years.

The new premises will include 29 guest rooms for visitors and staff with social space and facilities for research.

Interim area manager for HIE’s Shetland area team Katrina Wiseman said: “This project is of vital importance to Fair Isle bringing back a key income generating facility, providing employment, hosting visitors to the island, and providing world renowned research.

“The facility provides significant spin-off benefits for all Fair Isle businesses and the community.

“It will support the viability and sustainability of one of the most remote islands in the UK and at the same time contribute to the net zero aims of those living on the island.

“The new observatory will be a prime example of carbon friendly, sustainable visitor accommodation, which along with the new green jobs, will have significant positive environmental impacts. The important research work carried out by FIBOT will expand, enabling marine research, in collaboration with the community, to help tackle the climate emergency.”

Wiseman added: “The project also addresses other challenges for Fair Isle such as keeping and attracting population, and the need for tourism to be more sustainable.

“We are very much looking forward to seeing the observatory open once again.”

Rural affairs and islands secretary Mairi Gougeon said: “The observatory has been an integral part of the community on Fair Isle for many years, and it’s absolutely fantastic that this funding has been secured to help the rebuild.”

FIBOT chair Douglas Barr said the organisation was “extremely grateful” to HIE and the Scottish Government for their funding package which will enable us to rebuild the observatory next year.

Chair of the Fair Isle Community Kathy Coull said: “It is welcome news in Fair Isle that the bird observatory trust has now reached its funding target with the help of HIE funds from the Scottish Government.

“The rebuild can proceed and help secure our economic, social and cultural future. It signals a great step on our island’s road to recovery.”

The £2,348,590 support package includes £650,000 from HIE’s budget and almost £1.7 million of funding from the Scottish Government, with £1.3 million coming from Scottish Islands Critical Infrastructure Fund.

There is nearly £200,000 in net zero funding to help the region’s tourism industry be greener and more sustainable, and £200,000 Green Jobs funding for creating jobs that benefit the environment and helps to conserve natural resources.

The latter two Scottish Government funds are being distributed by HIE on behalf of the Scottish Government.

The project is also being supported by FIBOT’s own funds as well as an international crowdfunding appeal to raise £650,000 for the rebuild.

Shetland Islands Council (Crown Estates Coastal Communities Fund) and Garfield Weston Foundation are also contributing to the project.