Scotland’s natural heritage agency has raised concerns for important seabird colonies from a proposed space centre in Shetland.

NatureScot is to insist that managers of the proposed spaceport in Shetland does not carry out rocket launches during the breeding season fearing that without that protected populations on the island of Unst could disappear.

The plan is for the space centre to be be used by Lockheed Martin's UK Pathfinder satellite launch system and it would enable up to 30 launches per year.

It follows the UK Space Agency approving Lockheed Martin’s plan to use a £23.5m grant to move its UK Pathfinder Launch to the most northerly inhabited island in Scotland as part of the UK’s spaceflight programme.

The Scottish Government has already requested that it be notified should Shetland Islands Council be minded to grant planning permission for the proposed space centre.

The direction from the government “does not commit Scottish ministers to calling in application, but it does reserve their right to intervene”.

The Scottish Government says its direction, is to “assist in providing an overview of spaceport development in the planning system”.

HeraldScotland:

 Source: Malcolmson Architects

It would also prohibit the council in granting planning permission for 28 days once it indicates to the government that is minded to approve it.

There are currently three applications submitted to the council for the Shetland Space Centre.

The main application is for a satellite launch facility at Lamba Ness, while there are also plans to reuse the former Valhalla Brewery building and to create a new piece of road.

The proposals, submitted by consultants Farningham Planning, also include the building of a wildlife hide at Lamba Ness to help facilitate enhanced public access for the enjoyment of bird and orca watching.

The launch facility is expected to create around 140 jobs on Unst and inject at least £4.9m per annum into the island’s economy.

It is expected to create a further 70 jobs throughout Shetland, adding a further £2.9m in gross value per annum to the economy.

NatureScot operations manager for the northern isles, Daniel Brazier, says the agency will object to the proposal unless conditions on the spaceport’s operation are imposed saying that the proposal is likely to have affect the Hermaness, Saxa Vord and Valla Field Special Protection Area (SPA), which protects the breeding seabird colony, breeding red-throated diver and a number of breeding seabird species. It is concerned for the guillemot, kittiwake, fulmar and shag.

His advice is “that no launches or static tests are carried out between mid-May and the end of June to avoid disturbing birds during the critical incubation and early brooding period”.

HeraldScotland:

“Disturbance of incubating birds or those attending young chicks can result in loss of eggs or young to predators or through chilling," he said.

“Guillemots are particularly at risk as they lay their eggs directly onto rock ledges and if panicked into leaving hurriedly en-masse, large numbers of eggs can roll or be knocked off and lost.

“Repeated loss of eggs and chicks over several years would result in population decline and possibly abandonment of the colonies.

“If observation of birds attending the colonies during the pre-laying period (mid-April to mid-May) shows that launches do not significantly increase disturbance then this condition may be relaxed.”

He added: “Measures to prevent disturbance at the other locations might include suspending operations if breeding birds are present, or habitat modification to prevent them breeding near the launch site, combined with off-site habitat enhancement to create compensatory nesting sites elsewhere.”

Concerns have also been raised by Shetland’s regional archaeologist over the proposed layout of the satellite launch site.

Val Turner wrote in response to a consultation on Shetland Space Centre’s planning application for the site at Lamba Ness – a former RAF base of historical importance – that the proposals require a “major redesign”.

She believes that relocating much of the development away from sites of interest at Lamba Ness would “significantly reduce the impact on the archaeological remains, retaining the integrity of this nationally important site”.

Shetland Space Centre proposes to build three launch pads on the Lamba Ness peninsula, as well as associated infrastructure.

A report included in the space centre’s planning submission acknowledges there will be an obvious effect on the degraded infrastructure at the former RAF Skaw and on the setting of Inner Skaw scheduled monuments.

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

A Shetland Space Centre spokesman said: “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.”