The Scottish Government has approved the case for a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) at East Mingulay, south of Barra, while vulnerable Western Isles seal populations are to be better protected.
Creating a SAC at East Mingulay will protect a very rare coral reef found in the area, as well as safeguarding other species.
Meanwhile, in response to the widespread decline in the common seal population, a new Seal Conservation Area is to be created across the whole of the Western Isles. The existing protection measures – for Orkney, Shetland, the Moray Firth, and Firth of Tay – are also to be continued.
The impetus behind SACs is set in European legislation. The EU requires that member states complete the ‘Natura 2000’ ecological network, of which SACs are an integral part. The Scottish Government is not convinced that an adequate scientific case had yet been made to for a second SAC in the Sound of Barra and will therefore take forward further research into the populations of common seals in the Western Isles.
Environment Minister Roseanna Cunningham said:
“Following the scientific case put forward to create a Special Area of Conservation at East Mingulay, I can announce this has been given approval and will now be consulted on by Scottish Natural Heritage. This will help protect the rare cold water corals as well safeguarding many other species.
“Scotland’s seals form a unique part of our marine environment and the decline in common seal numbers in recent years is very worrying. That’s why we have taken action, using the provisions under the new Marine Scotland Act, to create Seal Conservation Areas. Using these provisions to cover the whole of the Western Isles will bring new protection for these seals.
“An investigation to explore the reasons for common seal population decline in the Western Isles will be taken forward, demonstrating the Scottish Government’s ongoing commitment to protecting our seals. Following the completion of this research a decision on the Sound of Barra SAC proposal will be made.”
East Mingulay is in the only known location inside UK territorial waters to feature the cold water coral Lophelia Pertusa. Scientific studies have identified at least 400 species living within the reef complex. The coral is also found at Darwin Mounds (outwith territorial waters), to the north west of Scotland.