Whales, wildlife and farm animals across a large swath of northern Scotland could all suffer if a veterinary health laboratory funded by the Scottish Government is forced to close, campaigners have warned.
Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) is planning to save £400,000 a year by closing the animal disease surveillance centre in Inverness. Across the Highlands, the centre looks after the health of agricultural livestock, helps investigate wildlife crime like the poisoning of birds of prey, and leads work on the hundreds of whales, dolphins and seals stranded and killed around Scotland’s shores.
SRUC has launched a consultation proposing that the Inverness centre’s work should be taken over by laboratories in Thurso, Aberdeen and Perth. The consultation is due to close this week, and then go to the Scottish Government for a decision.
Local politicians, farmers and vets have all protested against the proposed closure. But they have now been joined by environmental groups, alarmed at the implications for wildlife.
“The loss of the animal disease centre in Inverness will be a huge blow to the research being done to help save marine mammals,” said Alan Knight, chair of British Divers Marine Life Rescue.
“I have worked with the team at the Scottish marine animals stranding scheme for many years and we have changed our rescue protocols as a direct result of their research. To close the centre with no thought being given to where the scheme will be housed is beyond belief.”
Along with 14 other marine conservation groups under the banner of the Marine Animal Rescue Coalition, Knight has written to SRUC with a plea not to close the Inverness centre. “The UK has been a world leader in marine mammal science and the Inverness centre has played a pivotal role in this," said the coalition’s chair, Mark Simmonds.
“This research has revealed what is affecting our marine mammals and, most importantly, underpins our efforts to rescue them when they get into difficulties. This is why a such large number of rescue organisations are so concerned about this matter.”
According to Sarah Dolman, Northeast Atlantic programme manager for Whale and Dolphin Conservation, the data produced by the Inverness centre were vital to understanding the threats facing whales, dolphins, sharks and turtles.
“The lab needs to remain in Inverness to provide necessary and timely access to all coasts so that post-mortems can be conducted whilst the bodies are still fresh and collection of samples is possible,” she said.
“Scotland is world-leading in its strandings analysis, and home to a valuable long term government-funded data set. Closing this facility is unacceptable as it jeopardises the conservation of Scotland’s treasured marine life.”
The National understands that concern has also been expressed within the Scottish Government. “The proposed loss of post mortem facilities in this region could leave 25 per cent of Scottish livestock holdings with significantly degraded access to livestock health diagnostics and seriously compromise the effectiveness of surveillance for endemic and emerging diseases over large tracts of the Highlands,” said one insider.
The independent MSP for the Highlands and Islands, John Finnie, has started an online campaign to save the Inverness centre. “We will see greater difficulties and delays in both animal welfare and wildlife crime legal cases,” he said.
“It is clear that the removal of this vital service from the Highlands will ultimately cause far more damage than any short term profits that may be accrued through its closure.”
SRUC stressed that the aim of the proposed changes was to maintain a disease surveillance service in the Highlands, not withdraw it. But the service had to be “efficient, sustainable and robust”, an SRUC spokesman added.
“Many of the views, concerns and ideas expressed by those who have so far responded to the consultation have been helpful and constructive.” A report would be submitted, and SRUC would liaise with the Scottish Government to finalise plans.
Janet Swadling, Acting Chief Executive of SRUC said last week: “Against a budget that is reducing in real terms we have prepared a plan to provide a more efficient service which is fit for the future, considers local demands and the need to retain a critical mass of important expertise.”
The Scottish Government pointed out that the proposed closure would be considered by a strategic management board appointed by the rural affairs minister, Richard Lochhead. The minister was “paying close attention to the current situation, given concerns expressed in relation to the proposal to close Inverness,” said his spokeswoman.
Centre slated for closure exposed navy role in whale deaths
An investigation by the Inverness animal health centre threatened with closure pinned the blame for the deaths of 19 whales in the north of Scotland on the Royal Navy.
The pilot whales beached and died in the Kyle of Durness, a shallow inlet east of Cape Wrath, Europe’s largest live bombing range. They were disoriented by the explosion of four large bombs underwater by the Royal Navy in July 2011, scientists concluded.
A report led by the marine animal stranding scheme based at the Inverness laboratory, which Scotland’s Rural College is proposing to shut down, was published last month by the UK government. The noise from the bombs could have made the whales “functionally deaf” and damaged their ability to navigate safely, the report said.
The report revealed that three 1000-pound bombs were detonated in the sea by the Royal Navy’s Northern Diving Group in the 24 hours before the whales were stranded. A fourth 250-pound bomb was exploded after stranding began.
The bombs were left over from military exercises in which planes target Garvie Island, a small rocky outcrop 4.5 kilometres from the Kyle of Durness. Some bombs miss the island, fail to detonate and sink to the seabed, where they have to be located and disposed of for safety reasons.
The Ministry of Defence said that it accepted the findings of the report. “It identified a number of possible factors that may have influenced events, one of which was the detonation of underwater explosives,” said a spokesman.