A conservation company owned by billionaire Anders Holch Povlsen “refused to co co-operate” with a bird survey carried out as part of plans to build a rocket launch base in Sutherland, it has emerged.
Wildland, which owns tens of thousands of acres neighbouring the proposed spaceport, said it felt the work, commissioned by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), was not “in the best interests of wildlife in the area.”
The company is challenging HIE’s plans for the Space Hub Sutherland facility, on the A’Mhoine peninsula, near Tongue.
A hearing was held last month as part of a judicial review it requested of Highland Council’s decision to grant the development planning permission with a number of conditions.
HIE said the bird survey, on and around the site, in May was a “key element” of efforts to minimise potential environmental impacts and was carried out “with the utmost sensitivity by qualified specialists.”
Wildland’s refusal to co-operate was revealed in minutes of an HIE Board meeting held in April. The report also noted that the work was due to be carried out during bird breeding season.
Tim Kirkwood, chief executive of Aviemore-based Wildland, said: “All parties had previously been assured that the necessary bird surveys in connection with the planning application had been completed before consent was provided for the scheme, so we didn’t feel that this request was in the best interests of wildlife in the area.
Indeed, our understanding was that only the scheme to be developed was the one consented so we were unclear why the developers needed to risk unnecessary further disturbance for substantial areas outwith both the development site and extensive potential launch exclusion zone.
“On that basis, and given the ongoing judicial review, we opted not to grant access on this occasion.”
Surveys key to minimising impact
An HIE spokesman said the agency had been carrying out detailed bird surveys in the area since 2017.
He continued: “These are a key element of our work to evaluate and minimise any potential environmental impacts that could arise from the launch project.
It’s obviously important that the data we collect is as comprehensive and up to date as possible and that’s why we reached out to Wildland as neighbouring landowner.
“All our survey work has been carried out with the utmost sensitivity by qualified specialists who take great care to avoid any disturbance to birds, other wildlife, and their habitats.”
Mr Povlsen, who set up Wildland in 2012, is Scotland’s biggest landowner, with more than 221,000 acres across 12 estates, including Strathmore, Ben Loyal and Ben Hope in Sutherland.
Believed to have a net worth of more than £6billion, he is the largest shareholder in online retailer Asos and is sole owner of international clothing chain Bestseller.
Planning permission for Space Hub Sutherland, which would be the UK’s first vertical launch facility for sending small satellites into orbit, was granted by Highland Council last August.
The proposal went to the Scottish Government, which decided not to call it in for a public inquiry.
Wildland, which described the A’Mhoine peninsula as an “environmentally-sensitive protected area,” branded the council’s decision as “flawed” when the company lodged its petition for a judicial review in November last year.
At the time, Mr Kirkwood said the company believed the local authority “did not have access to sufficiently detailed or rigorous assessments on key aspects of the proposal.”
HIE has forecast the development would create 61 local jobs and 250 across the region.
The agency has said up to 12 rocket launches will take place at the site annually, with the first blasting off in the “early 2020s.”
Forres-based Orbex is planning to use it to send its Prime rockets into orbit, carrying commercial payloads of small satellites into space. In May, the firm announced plans to create up to 300 jobs at a new factory in the Moray town.
A full business case for an operating model for the spaceport is expected to be considered by HIE’s board next month.
HIE is footing £9.8m of the cost of developing the facility and the UK Space Agency is contributing £2.5m.
Highland Council received more than 450 objections to the agency’s original proposals for the site and 118 representations in support of them.