Inverpolly Estate calls in Audit Scotland to investigate £200,000 12-mile deer fence for Eisg Brachaidh Revival Project
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An Assynt estate is calling on a public spending watchdog to investigate a grant to put up a £200,000 deer fence as part of a conservation project.
NatureScot, formerly Scottish Natural Heritage, awarded the money to Woodland Trust Scotland, which will build a 12-mile fence around the Eisg Brachaidh estate.
The estate, south of Inverkirkaig near Lochinver, plans to improve rare habitats on the 2000ha estate, which is part of the larger Inverpolly Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Special Area of Conservation.
But neighbouring Inverpolly Estate and the Scottish Gamekeepers Association say the fence would displace deer populations and that woodland remnants could be safeguarded with other measures, such as smaller enclosures.
They also argue that the other "impacted parties" were not consulted about the plans, which would eventually see deer numbers inside the huge enclosure reduced to one or two deer per square kilometre.
Now Inverpolly Estate has written to Audit Scotland saying it believes there were "potential anomalies" in the awarding of £198,341 to Woodland Trust Scotland as part of NatureScot's £420,000 Biodiversity Challenge Fund.
In a letter to the watchdog, Victor Clements, consultant to Inverpolly Estate, said that freedom of information materials showed that the funds were granted on the basis of a single tender, secured after the award was made.
He also claimed that no environmental impact assessment had been carried out despite the fence crossing designated wild land, and that the sole agricultural tenant – Inverpolly Estate – had not been informed of the scheme until NatureScot had awarded the funds.
Similarly, the letter says that no economic assessments were carried out in order to assess the financial impact of such a major project on neighbours.
Mr Clements said: “I think it is hugely important for all of us working and advising on woodland and conservation projects in Scotland that funding is not allocated in this way, and without any significant consultation or assessment of risk or environmental impact.
“It undermines conservation management for all of us, and therefore it is hugely important to bring this to public attention. This is not the way to develop native woodland projects in particular, and this episode has undermined the credibility and reputations of all those involved.”
Assynt Community Council has also written to Scottish ministers asking that the project be placed on hold until risks to community interests have been properly assessed.
Audit Scotland confirmed it had received correspondence regarding the Assynt deer fence. "We are currently considering it and will reply to the correspondent in due course,” a spokesperson added.
The Eisg Brachaidh Revival Project is run by the Coigach and Assynt Living Landscape Project (CALLP) which has been developed between Eisg Brachaidh Estate and Woodland Trust Scotland. The trust will be overseeing
the work under the guidance of NatureScot, for the SSSI and deer management.
It aims to regenerate and revive 2000ha of Atlantic heath, peatland and ancient woodland by maintaining what it calls "light grazing" inside the enclosure in order to improve biodiversity and achieve a more natural outcome.
CALLP says that while there is no formal consultation required for the scheme, it has been engaging with many stakeholders prior to its funding application.
A NatureScot spokeswoman said: “We expect that the Woodland Trust, which leads this project, will continue its local discussion as the scheme progresses, and comply with statutory requirements for a scheme of this type, prior to work commencing. The local deer management group has discussed changing its deer management plan to take into account revised site management at Eisg Brachaidh.
“We have been involved in discussions on the future of this site including different fencing options for a number of years prior to this application. These works were advertised as per government requirements on Public Contracts Scotland and only one quote was submitted. That fencing work has not yet started.
“Sustainable deer management across Scotland is essential in helping address the climate emergency and biodiversity loss. We continue to work with partners such as Scottish Forestry, deer managers and environment groups, such as the Woodland Trust, to strengthen and develop approaches to manage deer, as well as encourage and protect woodland planting, across Scotland. That way, we can meet the challenges of biodiversity loss and climate change.”