ATTEMPTS to reverse population decline on a remote island would be wrecked by any plan to designate much of it as wild land, islanders have warned.
Stòras Uibhist, the community landowner on South Uist, fears that moves to describe much of the area as an untouched wilderness could herald a new Highland Clearances at a time when the number of people in the Hebridean island is falling, according to recent census information.
The Wild Land proposals are the subject of a public consultation and a large area of South Uist is included on a map produced by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). It insists the islanders' fears are unwarranted.
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But Huw Francis, chief executive of Stòras Uibhist, has written to Rural Affairs and Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead to warn him of their concerns and invite him to visit the island.
In the letter, Mr Francis said: "If the 'Wild Land' designation is introduced in the way that has been suggested there will be a serious impact on the ability of this community to regenerate the local economy and reverse population decline. The so-called 'Wild Land' of South Uist has been occupied, managed, altered, built on and farmed by island residents for thousands of years.
"Calling it an untouched wilderness disparages the long history of island living and imposes a romanticised and erroneous external construct on this community that will perpetuate the economic decline of the island economy."
South Uist had a population of more than 7000 before the early 19th century. In the 2001 census the population was 1818 and in 2011 it was down to 1754.
Stòras Uibhist became community landowner of the South Uist Estate, encompassing the bulk of the islands of Benbecula, Eriskay and South Uist, in 2006.
Mr Francis said that since the buyout, Stòras Uibhist had multiplied the value of the estate lands and secured more than £24 million in grant funding and commercial finance to invest locally "and transform the economy of these islands for the benefit of the people who live and work here".
But he said it would have been unlikely that the projects being pursued would have secured planning consent if the Wild Land proposal had been implemented to its fullest extent. "This community has no intention of destroying the environment of the Uists, that their forebears created through hard work," he said.
He added: "Much of Scotland was once designated as land fit only for sheep, which resulted in the Clearances. If Scotland continues to be designated as fit for nothing but conservation, a new clearance of rural Scotland will take place."
A spokeswoman for SNH said that as a result of comments on the Scottish Government's consultations on the National Planning Framework and draft Scottish Planning Policy, the organisation was conducting a further consultation about the wild land map.
"This map identifies those areas where Scotland's most extensive wild landscapes can be found. There are no plans to designate these areas, and we are not arguing for this."
She said the map instead helped to inform decision-makers about which areas are considered the most valued and important. "These wild land areas currently bring substantial economic, social and environmental benefits to their communities and Scotland."
She said there had been 25 responses in the first week of the consultation and urged anyone with an interest in wild land to contribute by December 20.