By Rob Edwards and Iain S Bruce
Spurred by the results of a new survey from the National Trust for Scotland, leading experts and environmental organisations have called upon the Scottish Government to consider conferring national park status upon one of the nation's best-known coastal areas.
The leading contenders being touted for protected status are: the Solway Firth; the Argyll Islands and Coast; Ardnamurchan, Small Isles, and the South Skye coast; North Skye Coast and Wester Ross; and North Uist, the Sound of Harris, Harris and South Lewis.
Citing figures revealing that a majority of the population strongly favour conserving wild marine landscapes, campaigners believe that unless action is taken, some of the country's most beautiful stretches of coastline could be endangered.
Marine expert Dr Richard Luxmoore, senior conservation adviser to the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), said: "Most of us live within 10 miles of the coast and the sea has always been a major source of income for coastal communities. Increasingly this is delivered through tourists who appreciate its scenery and wildlife, and it is vital that we recognise this golden goose through better protection."
The call for action came as NTS shared the first results of a poll on Scotland's landscapes with the Sunday Herald, which found that 58% of Scots feel that wild coastal areas need to be conserved for future generations.
The trust's head of policy, Diarmid Hearns, added: "I think we would all expect our mountains and lochs to figure highly on any survey about Scotland's landscapes, but what is really interesting here is that Scotland's wild coastal areas are so highly valued by people from all over the country, especially in the Highlands and Islands and Glasgow – suggesting a strong connection with these places."
Measures have been set out in the Marine (Scotland) Act to protect the marine environment and a national marine plan is expected to be in place by 2015. However, experts believe that Scotland's coastline and seascapes need more protection if they are to be properly conserved for future generations. Establishing a coastal national park could help ensure that the environmental and developmental needs of such landscapes are better balanced.
Bill McDermott, chairman of the Scottish Campaign for National Parks, said: "Given the scenic and natural heritage glories of our coastal areas, we have a real chance to do something special for Scotland as we approach the Year of Natural Scotland in 2013."
Official responses to the call have been less than enthusiastic, however. Pointing out that it earlier this month submitted proposals to the EU to make Hatton Bank off Scotland's west coast the largest marine protected area in Europe, a government spokesman said: "The Scottish government is committed to protecting the valuable natural features of coastal areas through a range of measures.
"We are committed to caring for special environmental qualities but the context has shifted and national parks are not the only approach in these new circumstances.
"We are also implementing a series of new approaches in Scottish waters in light of the Marine (Scotland) Act, including a national marine plan and a network of marine protected areas, which will contain a number of west-coast sea lochs for a range of nationally important species and habitats.
"These measures will improve care for natural heritage and areas of natural heritage value."
Options for coastal national parks
Solway Firth: stretching from Dumfries and Galloway to Cumbria, the firth was designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty in 1964.
Argyll Islands and Coast: historically regarded as encompassing the coast between the Mull of Kintyre and Cape Wrath and including the islands of Islay, Coll and Tiree, the area is one of Scotland's most well-known locations.
Ardnamurchan, Small Isles, and the South Skye Coast: unspoilt and remote, the proposed national park site falls between Skye and the Ardnamurchan peninsula and is home to rare species including the wildcat, pine marten and white-tailed eagle.
North Skye Coast and Wester Ross: sitting north of Lochaber, the area is known for regular sightings of minke whales, dolphins and porpoises, while humpback and killer whales are occasional visitors.
North Uist, the Sound of Harris, Harris and South Lewis: pockmarked by numerous bays, sandy beaches and machair, the area is famed for its unique rock stack formations and peatlands, which support a wide variety of birdlife and rare vegetation.