A photomontage illustrating how the Balmacqueen site would look from the coastal path at Radar Station. Image: Munro Landscape Ltd.

Fish farm sunk by path used by 5.4 people a day

Organic Sea Harvest (OSH) has lost its appeal against refusal of planning permission for a salmon farm at Balmacqueen, off the north-east coast of Skye.

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It is the second time OSH has lost a planning appeal, following a Scottish Government Reporter’s decision to affirm Highland Council’s refusal of an application for the company’s proposed Flodigarry site in the same area.

Both refusals have been based in the main on the perceived visual impact of the farms to people walking a coastal path used by an average of 5.4 people a day.

Members of Highland Council’s North Planning Applications Committee voted 8-6 to reject the Balmaqueen proposal in January, and Reporter Sue Bell yesterday published her decision backing the refusal.    

OSH said it was very disappointed by the outcome. “We will need time to study the report in more detail before making any further comments,” the company said.

Feeling of ‘wildness’

In a 23-page Appeal Decision Notice, Bell said she made a visit to the area near the proposed fish farm on June 16-18 and found that “the coastal and sea views from the path between Balmacqueen and Flodigarry are uninfluenced by static man-made structures in the sea. This adds to the feeling of ‘naturalness’ and ‘wildness’ of this stretch of coast and adjoining sea. I find that the proposed fish farm, with its introduction of static structures, including the feed barge, would significantly detract from that impression”.

Bell wrote that an Environmental Statement (ES) prepared in connection with the planning application states that the clifftop path between Balmacqueen to Flodigarry “is used infrequently when compared to other paths and viewpoints to the south of Staffin”. It considers that as parts of the possible route run either close to the edge of a crumbling cliff, or require travel through a field with cattle, this may discourage walkers from using it.

“Whether or not that is the case, during my site inspection I encountered several other walkers on the path, who appeared to be a mixture of local residents and visitors to Skye (including those carrying camping equipment), suggesting that it is used frequently, if not intensively,” stated Bell.

“The numbers that I observed were broadly consistent with the estimates of daily visitor numbers set out in the ES (environmental statement). Based on use of static cameras, the ES states that an average of 5.4 visitors per day were recorded on the southerly camera, with a minimum of one and a maximum of 15 user per day. Similar numbers were recorded from the northerly camera.

“Whilst numbers using the path may be relatively low compared to visitor numbers to some other coastal areas of the Island, I do not consider them to be unimportant. Walkers are generally considered to be sensitive to visual impacts. As I stated above, the nature of the path means that attention is inevitably drawn to views of the cliff edge and near-sea areas where the proposed fish farm would be located. I conclude that its proximity and hence prominence in the foreground, in a seascape that is otherwise free of permanent man-made structures would detract significantly from the feelings of wildness and tranquillity that can currently be experienced.”

Localised effects

She added that she did not view the proposal site from the sea, but accepted that there would be localised effects, both during the day and during nighttime.

Overall, there would be significant adverse effects on seascape, landscape and visual receptors. These effects would be particularly experienced by users of the coastal footpath.

OSH already operates farms at Invertote and Culnancnoc, a few miles south, and establishing a third site would enable it to have longer fallowing periods at all three.

Temporary removal of cages

“I have considered the appellant’s aspiration to be able to operate this fish farm as part of a larger operation, which would allow for temporary removal of cages and visible infrastructure during periods between production cycles, when the cages would be left fallow,” wrote Bell.

“However, I do not consider that this would alter the assessment of significance. In reaching that conclusion I am mindful that there is no certainty that the fish farm would be able to be operated in that way. Even if cages are removed for short periods, that would not alter the scale of impact during the times when they were in situ.”

Theoretical visibility

Bell wrote that the “Zone of Theoretical Visibility” of the proposed Balmacqueen site overlaps the boundaries of both the Trotternish National Scenic Area (NSA) and the Trotternish and Tianavaig Special Landscape Area (SLA).

She concluded that views of the site from within the NSA would not detract from views of listed Special Qualities of the area, which include “dramatic sea-cliffs of basaltic columns” and “distant views over the sea”.

However, she pointed out that Highland Council’s assessment of the SLA stated that development on remote uninhabited areas of coastline could detract from the feeling of tranquillity and isolation or impinge on views out to sea or inland towards the ridge, detracting from the special interest of the SLA.

The Reporter added that NatureScot (formerly Scottish Natural Heritage) considers that the coast creates a “localised sense of isolation and tranquillity on some sections” and that some of the special qualities of the SLA would be eroded by the establishment of the salmon farm.

“I find the proposals would have significant adverse effects on landscape and seascape through impacts on wildness, tranquillity, dark skies/ sky glow and tourism in the form of users of the coastal path, which contributes to the Skye Trail,” wrote Bell.

Cages ‘difficult to overlook’

She added: “Whilst I accept that the cages would be viewed against an extensive backdrop, and hence only occupy part of the view, I consider that their proximity to the shore would mean that they appear as a prominent and conspicuous feature in the foreground. As such, they would be difficult to overlook.”

Bell noted measures taken by OSH to minimise or mitigate the visual impacts of the farm, including the reduced scale of the application and changes to the feed barge.

“Nevertheless, I do not consider that these mitigate the adverse impact sufficiently to avoid significant effects,” concluded the Reporter. “I therefore conclude that the proposed development, through the introduction of manmade structures into this area of coastline, and at the proposed distance from shore, would have a significant adverse effect on the landscape character, scenic and visual amenity.”