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Military to leave St Kilda

The Ministry of Defence is closing its missile tracking base on St Kilda. The base, which has been on the main island of Hirta since the first World War, is now run by MoD spin-off company Qinitec and is used to track test missiles and flights from the neighbouring base on Benbecula in the Outer Hebrides. The MoD has just started a 30 day consultation on the closure which is likely to see the lose of 125 jobs at the two sites.

St Kilda is the UK’s only Dual World Heritage Site, designated for both is natural and cultural significance. It is one of the north-east Atlantic’s most significant seabird colonies, which includes the largest gannet colony in the world. It also has a wealth of archaeological remains which give evidence of a unique island life dating back thousands of years. It has been owned by the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) since 1957. The Trust is currently asking the MoD to reconsider the closure plans.

Walkhighlands understands that the MoD currently pays approximately £100,000 per year for leasing three hectares of St Kilda for the base. It is understood that some of the money goes to Scottish Natural Heritage and some to the NTS as landowner. As reported here, the Trust has been under increasing financial pressure due to the economic turn down and has recently announced the closure of a number of its sites and visitor centres.

The Trust says it is concerned that significant damage could occur in the winter months if the island were unstaffed. It says damage to buildings and monuments by storms or vandalism could go unchecked and potential environmental damage from introduced species from passing boats would put the World Heritage Site at risk

The Trust also says that the move to an unmanned operation would also significantly increase costs for the conservation charity who share vital services with the MoD facility, make travel to and from the island more difficult and restrict the available accommodation for essential contractors.

National Trust for Scotland Chief Executive Kate Mavor said, “St Kilda is one of the world’s natural and cultural treasures and the Trust is very privileged to have such an important site in its care. We are very concerned by the possibility that the base on Hirta would no longer be manned. Without the support of the MoD and the infrastructure that they have in place there, there is no doubt that we would find it very difficult to give St Kilda the level of care and attention that it requires.

“The Trust would also face a massive increase in costs to maintain our work there and to deal with the redundant MoD buildings. At a time when the organisation is working hard to improve its financial sustainability, this is a cost that we can ill afford. However, of more concern is the risk that this proposal poses to the environmental and cultural treasures which make St Kilda so special. I would urge the MoD to give full consideration to these issues, before making any final decision.”

The existence of a military base on St Kilda has often been controversial, with environmentalists claiming damage to the island from the increased human presence, vehicle tracks and buildings. Back in 1918, soon after the establishment of the original radar base, it was bombed by a German U-boat causing damage to the base and islander’s property. The islanders were eventually evacuated from St Kilda in 1930 and the base was enlarged in 1957 with the original MoD plans requiring the demolition of the houses in village bay to provide stone to build the base. Eventually a new quarry was established to provide stone for the base. The National Trust for Scotland was instrumental in ensuring the MoD did not destroy the village back in 1957, but now seems to see the MoD as essential for the protection of the islands.

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