Urgent calls have been made for an estuary boasting more than 1,000 invertebrate species and rare flowering plants to be protected from future development projects.
Situated in Ayrshire, the Garnock Estuary is a mosaic of dunes, grassland, woodlands, scrub and wetlands.
It is home to 99 species of invertebrates of “conservation concern” – a status given to a plant or animal for which there is concern over its ability to remain on a landscape for a long time – and some other species found nowhere else in Scotland, according to Scottish wildlife charities.
The estuary has also been hailed as one of the best breeding bird sites on the Lower Clyde coast.
However, organisations calling to protect the tidal mouth said because of a special development order dating back to 1953, planning permission is not required for development and activities in the area, which could put the wildlife at risk.
Anne McCall, director of RSPB Scotland, said protecting areas that are best for wildlife, such as the Ardeer Peninsula, is “critical.”
The Ardeer Action group, made up of local community groups and national organisations including RSPB Scotland, Buglife, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and Plantlife Scotland, has written an extensive report on why the area should become a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
In a signed letter to the chief executive of Scottish Government agency NatureScot, the action group said the area is facing “growing development pressure”, with a number of large and potentially damaging developments proposed including housing, a golf course and a nuclear power plant.
And with the site already facing ongoing sand extraction projects, which the charities claim are damaging the estuary’s dune habitats, the action group said granting SSSI status to the area is urgent.
Iain Hamlin, of the Ardeer Action Group, said: “The designation of this site would help the Scottish Government and NatureScot meet their aspirations to reverse biodiversity loss and protect 30% of Scotland’s land for nature by 2030, while ensuring the residents of Irvine and Stevenston, North Ayrshire, and beyond can enjoy access to a unique, wildlife-rich and largely untamed space both now and in the future.”
Craig Macadam, conservation director of Buglife, added: “Biodiversity is in crisis with populations of insects and other wildlife in steep decline.
“Rare habitats and specialist species are becoming more and more fragmented and at risk of extinction.
“It is essential that we act now to protect our best remaining wildlife sites before it is too late.”
A spokesperson for Ardeer Regeneration Ltd said: “The Garnock Estuary is already a recognised Site of Special Scientific Interest under the NatureScot designation of Bogside Flats SSSI. Ardeer Regeneration Ltd (ARL), a NPL Group company, own a large proportion of this SSSI together with the RSPB.
“ARL recognise and respect the importance of the Bogside Flats SSSI and have not sought to promote any development contrary to SSSI values within it.
“ARL can further confirm that if the Fusion Forward Ardeer team of NPL, University of Glasgow and North Ayrshire Council are successful in attracting the proposed STEP Fusion Plant to Ardeer that the project would not be built on the Bogside Flats SSSI.
“ARL and the UK Atomic Energy Authority understand that the STEP project is not permissible under the terms of the Special Development Order and if Ardeer is the successful site, then the UKAEA would make a Section 36 application (Planning) to the Scottish Government accompanied by an Environmental Impact Assessment.
“This EIA would ensure consultation with statutory and local bodies during the EIA Scoping process to ensure that all relevant ecological aspects are considered in tandem with the significant investment and employment numbers that STEP would bring to North Ayrshire and the West of Scotland.”