Clydeport has entered a joint venture with a Highland haulage company to ship 200,000 tonnes of timber and fish meal from a small port near Fort William to Rochester in South-east England.

The joint venture with Fort William-based Boyd Brothers is aimed at taking heavy goods vehicles off the roads in line with the Government's environmental policy and is likely to be supported by a grant from the Scottish Executive.

But a source close to Clydeport said the deal also marked the start of a push by Clydeport to extend its activities in the Western Highlands, where Associated British Ports (ABP) is also vying for new business.

Clydeport is expected to announce shortly a joint venture with Boyd Brothers to upgrade the Highland company's Annet Point pier at Corpach near Fort William to handle larger vessels than can presently be accommodated.

The small port already trades timber and fishmeal with Scandinavia, but at present it is restricted to vessels of up to 4000 tonnes deadweight.

The joint venture with Boyd Brothers involves loading timber felled in the Highlands on to ships at Corpach and transporting it to Rochester, a port on the Medway in Kent.

''We have already been involved in a pilot project, and the results have been encouraging,'' said Clydeport operations director Peter Lawwell.

He pointed out that the average HGV carried 22 tonnes and that

if the joint venture achieves its

target of transporting 200,000 tonnes by sea it will remove the need for two million miles of lorry journeys per year.

''This will have a major impact upon the noise, pollution and congestion in the north of Scotland's road network, especially in the summer months,'' he said.

Clydeport and Boyd Brothers have applied for a Freight Facilities Grant to improve the facilities at Annet Point Pier in view of the environmental benefits that can be obtained from using the small port more intensively.

The Freight Facilities Grant was introduced by the Government last year to encourage the transfer of freight traffic from road to rail and sea. The Scottish Executive's stated aim is to remove 15 million lorry miles from Scotland's road every year for the next three years.

Earlier this year Scottish Transport Minister Sarah Boyack announced a #4.4m grant to ABP to help the company upgrade freight-handling facilities at the port of Ayr to unload timber from Ardrisaig and Campbeltown.

The ABP TimberLink project aims to remove 1.4 million miles by transporting 300,000 tonnes

of Forestry Commission timber annually by sea.

Douglas Morrison, ABP's port manager for Ayr and Troon, believes this figure can be surpassed. ''The timber which arrives here goes to three Ayrshire end-users, but we have a rail link, and there is no reason why this cannot be used to transport timber south,'' he said.

Morrison said ABP was in

discussion with other Highland ports with a view to generating more timber traffic.

Another company keen to ship more timber out of the Highlands by sea is Iggesund Forestry of Sweden. It has applied for a Freight Facilities Grant to improve the West Pier at Lochaline on the Sound of Mull to allow it to ship out 500,000 tonnes of timber over a 15-year period.

Iggesund has also submitted

an application for a grant to

help finance improvements to

the harbour at Portavadie on

Loch Fyne.

''Timber from these piers would be shipped to Corpach or south to Workington (in Cumbria) where our company has a paper mill,'' said Stephen Bradley, area forest manager for Iggesund which is part of the Swedish Holmen Paper Group.

Currently, the Freight Facilities Grant scheme only applies to inland waterways, which are upstream of any point where a river, or sea inlet, first narrows so that the opposite banks are no more than five kilometres apart at high water spring tide, or three kilometres apart at low water spring tide.

But the Scottish Executive plans to amend this regulation

to open the grant up to small coastal ports.

There is a massive potential market for shipping timber south, with one million tonnes of timber felled in the Fort William area alone. Scotland's timber harvest

is predicted to double over the next 15 years.