Around 70 aircraft and 36 warships are bombarding Cape Wrath, near Durness, as part of a two-week training exercise codenamed Joint Warrior, involving the armed forces of 17 NATO countries, including the UK, the US, Canada and France.
But the area is surrounded by farms, is vital for Scotland’s collapsing seabird populations and is frequented by whales and dolphins. Cape Wrath’s northern sea cliffs have been designated a special protection area for birds under European law.
Farmers and wildlife experts are alarmed about the impact of Joint Warrior, only the second such exercise to take place in the spring. It coincides with the region’s three-week lambing period, and with the beginning of the breeding season for seabirds like puffins and kittiwakes.
“It’s a general damn nuisance,” says Hamish Campbell (70), who manages 3,000 sheep at Balkeil farm, near Cape Wrath. “It’s the wrong time of year and I’m very unhappy about it. We would rather they left the sheep in peace at this time of year.”
The animals are disturbed by the noise of exploding shells, low-flying helicopters and jets, as well as being at risk from increased road traffic. “The whole house rattles when they start the bombing,” he says.
“When I was out this morning, they were shooting over my head. It frightens the life out of the dogs, and they come squealing to your heel. It’s not good.”
Campbell, who has been farming in the area since 1954, had to move sheep out of the 1,000 acres he manages on the Cape Wrath firing range. “They had a consultation meeting, but they just told us what was going to happen.”
The wild land guardian, the John Muir Trust, owns the Sandwood estate to the south of the firing range. “Cape Wrath is one of the most remote and fragile areas of mainland Britain,” says the trust’s chief executive, Nigel Hawking.
“How many of the other sixteen nations involved in this NATO exercise would agree to the wholesale bombardment by sea and air of such an important part of their own territory?”
Hawking points out that Cape Wrath is a sanctuary for an estimated 50,000 nesting seabirds, including puffin, razorbill, guillemot, kittiwake and fulmar. The trust’s counts of the birds along the cliffs of Sandwood have discovered a dramatic decline in numbers in the past five years, probably because of food shortages caused by global warming.
“It seems madness to add this further pressure on an already fragile population,” argues Hawking. “We urge the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to change the dates of all future Joint Warrior exercises to avoid the most critical seabird breeding season in April, May and June.”
Similar concerns have been raised by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has requested the MoD to try and avoid the sea cliffs. The government’s conservation agency, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), also accepts that there could be problems.
“Clearly any exercise like this will have the potential to disturb the birds, although there is no evidence to suggest that there has been any negative impact on the populations,” says an SNH spokesman. Conducting the exercise now before most birds start breeding may be less damaging than having it in June, as previously, when birds are still rearing their young.
The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) is worried that the use of underwater sonar in the exercise could harm whales. Since February the bodies of 24 whales have been found stranded around the west cost of Scotland, which the society thinks might be linked to previous use of sonar.
“There is no doubt that mid frequency active sonar injures and kills whales,” says WDCS’s Sarah Dolman. “Whilst we acknowledge that the MoD is making some efforts towards mitigation, we do not believe that these go far enough.”
The MoD, however, insists that its activities are not responsible for the stranded whales. The navy only uses sonar after they have checked that no cetaceans present, says MoD spokesman, Neil Smith.
The MoD has agreed to reduce the number of flights above Cape Wrath by more than 50%, he points out. Joint Warrior utilises other areas around the UK, and now takes place twice a year, instead of three times a year as previously.
“Reducing flight numbers over the north west of Scotland will cause a significant reduction in the total noise generated there; as will our agreement to stop live aircraft bombing and use practice weapons instead at Cape Wrath,” says Smith.
“At all times we have striven to achieve an appropriate balance between the needs of local people and the needs of military personnel who use this exercise to prepare for operational deployments around the globe.”
Exercise Joint Warrior started on 20 April and is due to end on 2 May. According to the MoD, Royal Navy and NATO ships will be firing at targets on the shores of Cape Wrath “on most days of the exercise”, while RAF aircraft will attack ground targets.
A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “While we understand the need for training exercises to take place, local interests, including biodiversity and farming, must always be taken into account.”