February 2001

Shieldaig hydro plan redrawn

Plans for a controversial new hydro-electric power scheme in Wester Ross are due to be submitted to the Scottish Executive in February 2002. Dundee-based Highland Light and Power (HLP) have drawn up modified proposals for a project in the Shieldaig-Slattadale area after withdrawing their initial application. In 1996 the project met with opposition from many organisations, including Highland Council, Scottish Natural Heritage, Mountaineering Council of Scotland, RSPB, Scottish Wild Land Group and the John Muir Trust. In the second application, the company promises measures to reduce the impact on both wildlife and the landscape. Weirs are to be designed to be less obtrusive to the environment, with lower heights, while pipelines and cables are to be buried. Four lochs - Loch a'Bhealaich, Loch a'Ghobhainn, Loch Gaineamhach and Loch na h'Oidhche - are to be dammed if the scheme is given the green light. An underground pipeline will take water from Loch Gaineamhach to a turbine house beside the Dubh Loch. Another pipeline will run from an installation below Loch na h' Oidhche to a turbine above Loch Maree. In 1999 HLP was awarded a 15 year contract comprising 12% of the anticipated new hydro-electric schemes aimed at contributing to Scotland's renewable energy targets by the end of the decade. These have been set to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Jock Robertson, of Highland Light and Power, said there already exist, in the area, two hydro schemes, one a hydro scheme built 50 years ago on the Kerry River and the other, built by his company nine years ago, on Loch Garbhaig. The latter, he claims, is inconspicuous. ''Everything is buried and the turbine house has been hidden in a wood near the road. Nothing is visible,'' said Mr Robertson. ''Hydro schemes now are inconspicuous. They are extremely small. This scheme is big only in the sense that the output is big." HLP say the Shieldaig-Slattadale area has been chosen for the project as the area benefits from high rainfall levels and the loch system is well suited to a storage scheme. The altitude also provides a high 'head' of water to drive turbines and generate electricity. Under the current plans, a 2.5 metre high weir will be built on Loch a'Bhealaich, a 1.5 metre high weir on Loch a'Ghobhainn and two metre high weirs on Loch Gaineamhach and Loch na h' Oidhche. Turbine houses will be built into the hillside and will be designed to blend into the landscape. The company adds there will be no more than a 7cm reduction in water levels in any 24 hour period. In redesigning the scheme, HLP say they have spent considerable time modifying the proposals to address concerns raised about the impact on species, such as black-throated divers and freshwater pearl mussels.

At a public meeting held by HLP in October in Gairloch, local opinion on the project was divided. Conservation bodies are waiting for the full application to be unveiled before making detailed responses.

Among them is the John Muir Trust which cares for areas of wilderness across Scotland. A spokesman said: ''We have had many interesting discussions with HLP, but there is still a frustrating lack of detail in the proposed plans. ''Until the plans are submitted in full, we cannot express a clear view on the proposals. At this stage, we remain deeply concerned about the effects on the wild beauty of the area. ''Our overall aim is not to stand in the way of developments in Wester Ross, but to find ways in which hydro power can be obtained without serious detriment to wild land.'' What do you think? Leave your comments on our Message Board For more info, visit: Highland Light and Power Low Impact - A Gairloch-based website with local responses John Muir Trust

Glencoe path project complete

Three years of hard work repairing eroded paths in Glencoe has been completed thanks to the �232,000 European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund Upland Footpath Project carried out by the National Trust for Scotland. Despite work being setback by the foot and mouth crisis in early 2001 the team was back on schedule by September following an industrious summer spell. During the final year of the project work concentrated on the upper part of Coire nam Beith, Allt Ruigh, Coire Gabhail and Allt na Sidhean. All the routes have been surveyed to measure progress made over the three years of the project and to evaluate any further work that may be required on the routes in the future. The last part of the year offered the chance to go back over all the paths worked on and carry out work to consolidate those paths. Project leader Dougie Baird said: "One of the key aspect to successful delivery of works of this scale has clearly been the close linkage with the Trust's ESF (European Social Fund) Path Skills Training Project. Using a standards-based approach to path training in a live working environment has allowed us to bring in additional and replacement workers as and when required, and who were able to cope with the demanding workload. "The retention of a predominantly locally based workforce has strengthened the continuity of personnel, and provided for consistent standards of work throughout the 4,207 metres improved by the project." The project also received funding from the Highlands and Islands Partnership Programme through Objective 1 cash, Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Mountaineering Trust.

Land Reform Bill anger

Highland MSP Fergus Ewing has accused ministers behind the Land Reform Bill of distorting the opinions of members of the public who made written submissions setting out their views. The SNP member for Inverness East, Nairn and Lochaber said his own analysis showed that a massive majority of the 3,587 responses were opposed to denying the right of access to outdoor activity providers, such as mountain guides and climbing instructors. In a reference to foot and mouth disease, he said: "These are the very people who, during the months of March to May last year, lost all of their income but nonetheless behaved responsibly and stayed off the hill in accordance with the voluntary code." Mr Ewing said Rural Affairs and Environment Minister Ross Finnie had refused to remove the provision in the bill which denies them access.

Highland path plans

Communities in the Highlands will benefit from enhanced countryside access as a result of a partnership between Highland Council, Scottish Natural Heritage, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, and the Paths for All Partnership. Five access officers have been engaged for three years to refurbish, waymark and promote 1,300 km of existing paths and create 10 km of new paths. A grant of �409,000 from the European Agricultural Guidance and Guarantee Fund has helped to take this project forward. The project aims to establish a multi-user path network not only for existing users but also for those who don't normally see themselves as path users. Dr Jim Hunter, Chairman of Highlands and Islands Enterprise said: "Raising awareness of access for the benefit of local people and visitors alike is very important. The paths network provides a valuable recreational amenity which further underlines the quality of life in the Highlands as well as bringing millions of pounds each year into the economy." Magnus Magnusson, of the Paths for All Partnership, added: "We believe well planned and managed path networks can help landowners to manage access and will bring wider tourism and health benefits for local communities."

Climbers rescued on Lochnagar

Two foresters who became trapped overnight in freezing conditions while climbing Lochnagar are recovering from their ordeal after a dramatic early-morning rescue. Mick Bestwick (39), and Sandy Main (44), from Keig, near Alford, spent the night hooked on to the mountain face perched on a nine-inch ledge after they found themselves unable to descend from their climb late on Sunday, February 24. Rescuers, who battled through deteriorating weather to bring the friends back to safety, described their decision to tackle the route as "over-ambitious". The pair began their climb at 10am on Sunday but, as the day progressed, they found they were unable to turn back and had no option but to continue their ascent up the 3,800ft mountain. As the hours passed, worried friend Jo Macleod contacted the climbers on their mobile phone, keeping up to date with their progress through text messages and short conversations. But by 11pm it became clear that the duo were not going to make it off the mountain by themselves and the police were called. Nineteen members of Grampian Police and the Braemar Mountain Rescue Team searched for the pair, assisted by a rescue helicopter from RAF Lossiemouth. Royal Marines from RM Condor, Arbroath, were also involved in the rescue effort. Deteriorating weather prevented their rescue from the Eagle's Buttress by helicopter, so the climbers were hoisted 350ft to Lochnagar's summit before being walked off and driven to Ballater. Afterwards, Mr Main - head forester on the Forbes Estate - reflected on the events leading up to the rescue. He said: "We weren't undertaking to do anything serious because the forecast was quite bad. We couldn't find anything solid to abseil off and we had no option but to carry on up. The higher up we got, the harder it was getting. We were still climbing at about 10pm." Despite being out in the wilds, Mr Bestwick's mobile phone had perfect reception, although a fading battery meant that contact with worried friends was kept brief. The infrequent conversations, coupled with dropping temperatures, saw Mr Bestwick's partner, Angela Place, phone for assistance. "We decided to phone because the fact was we'd had no proper contact," she said. "We were in a tricky situation, but the support from the police and mountain rescue was really fantastic." Although the climbers escaped serious injury, the water they were carrying with them froze during the night, leading to a touch of dehydration. This in turn caused cramp-like pains in their hands. The pair secured themselves on a small ledge and waited for help to arrive. Mr Bestwick was full of praise for his rescuers. He said: ''They certainly deserve a pat on the back. Quite frankly we made a mistake and accept that. It was an error of judgment, but it ended safely." The leader of the Braemar Mountain Rescue Team, Constable Jim Wood, said the pair had misjudged their route. "The climb they were on was completely different from the one they were attempting," he added. "They should have been on a grade three but were on the Eagle's Buttress, which is a grade five, which is beyond their experience level. From the start to finish their day was over-ambitious - they started late and changed their plan.''

A highland mountain rescue team risked their ownives to retrieve the bodies of two climbers caught up in an avalanche in Wester Ross. Following a dangerous overnight search - hampered by waist-deep snow and the threat of further avalanches - the men were discovered at the foot of a gully in the Beinn Dearg area, near Braemore. Ian Collier (42), from Alloa, and Glasgow man Douglas McQuaker (35), were climbing in the area on Saturday, March 9, and were reported overdue later that night. Dundonnell Mountain Rescue Team became involved in the search at about 1am on Sunday, and were subjected to high winds and deep snow. More than six hours later, search-and-rescue team dog Toddy and his handler Peter Crichton found the bodies of the men, who were strung together with a climbing rope. They were found at the foot of Penguin Gully at about 7.15am. Rescuers said the men were on an 1,000ft ice climb and may have been struck by an avalanche after a fall. Three RAF helicopters that had been assisting the search were unable to get in to retrieve the bodies, but eventually, at lunchtime, there was a break in the weather long enough for the Stornoway Coastguard helicopter to take the men to a police pick-up point at Ullapool. Praising his team's actions, Dundonnell team leader Bill Amos said: "The whole time the guys were getting hit by snowfalls. Because of the potential danger they are in all team members carry a radio receiver so we can find them in case they are buried by an avalanche. The conditions were very dangerous. You make a judgement on whether to get the casualties out or look at your own safety first. They certainly put themselves at risk to get the casualties out." At one point, the team had to withdraw from the search area due to the threat of further avalanching. But the rescuers were at least saved some time when the Stornoway helicopter finally got close enough to pick up the bodies. Deputy team leader Calum MacRae, who co-ordinated the overnight operation, spoke of the ordeal his team went through in the line of duty. He said: "We were called out at about 1.15am by the police, and we ended up out there for about five or six hours. The conditions were horrendous out there - we were contending with 70mph winds and the snow was up to our waists. "Initially, our big problem was that we were going to have to carry the bodies off the hill because the helicopters couldn't get in - that would have meant another six or seven hours on the hill for the team. However, we got a window in the weather - otherwise we would still have been out there at about 8pm tonight." Team member Angus Jack added: "We were absolutely shattered at the end - the conditions were very difficult."