Shetland Spaceport on Unst

Tagged with: Casework status: Open Casework type: Aviation Casework type: Construction Casework type: Industry Site designations: SPA Site designations: SSSI

Overview

In January 2021 an application was made to Shetland Islands Council for a vertical launch spaceport. The proposal includes 3 launch pads which would be used to propel small satellites into space. A maximum of 30 launches are proposed in a year, including during the bird breeding season. The applicant says that the longest rockets fired from the site would be 30m in length.

The applicant submitted an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) with the application which assesses if there would be likely to be 'significant' effects from the development, including on the environment, habitats and birds. They have also looked at other aspects such as carbon impacts and how many jobs might be created if it went ahead.

RSPB Scotland initially objected to the application due to concerns that the noise from the rocket launches would impact on protected breeding birds. The Hermaness, Saxa Vord and Valla Field Special Protection Area (SPA) is about 3.79km from the nearest proposed launch pad. We did not think that the application demonstrated that the development would not adversely affect this SPA (which is a protected area for internationally important populations of birds). In addition, we thought they needed to provide more information on how they would avoid harmful impacts on two species of rare birds which breed on Unst.

We also raised some concerns about their proposals to offset impacts on peat, carbon emissions and birds.

In November 2021 the Applicant submitted more information as an addition to the EIA. They confirmed that they were willing not to carry out any rocket launches between mid-May and the end of June, to avoid the most sensitive part of the bird breeding season. This has enabled RSPB Scotland to withdraw our objection, provided that a condition is attached to any permission securing this restriction.

They will also need to provide information on how they will avoid disturbing breeding birds, and submit a breeding birds protection plan.

Shetland Island Council is now minded to grant permission, with conditions attached, including one to prevent launches during mid-may to the end of June.

Kittiwake chicks - Arfa Skene

Why is it worth fighting for?

There is potential for impacts on the nearby Hermaness, Saxa Vord and Valla Field Special Protected Areas, which is about 3.79km from one of the proposed launch pads. This internationally designated site is protected for its populations of breeding seabirds; fulmar, gannet, great skua, guillemot, puffin, kittiwake, red-throated diver and shag. The SPA overlaps two nationally designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs): Hermaness SSSI and Saxa Vord SSSI, which are also protected for their seabirds.

Unst is also home to protected bird species which are rare but have a stronghold in Shetland.

Map

Our position

The applicant had said in their Environmental Impact Assessment that they do not predict that the spaceport, including the noise launching rockets, would have an adverse impact on birds protected by the Hermaness, Saxa Vord and Valla Field SPA. However, we were concerned that there isn't enough information to come to this conclusion. We are worried that the noise from the launches could cause birds nesting on the cliffs to fly up in large numbers, which could leave chicks or eggs exposed, knock chicks or eggs from the cliffs or even cause some birds to abandon their nests. This could result in impacts on the SPA as a whole.

Before a decision is made, the decision maker has to consider whether the 'integrity' of the SPA would be adversely affected by the proposal. If they cannot conclude that it would not be, then it's unlikely that they would be able to grant consent in line with regulations. We said in our objection letter that further assessment of the impacts on the SPA was needed. The Applicant has addressed the issue but agreeing to a 'no-launch' period between mid-May to the end of June, to avoid the most sensitive part of the bird breeding season.

We also objected due to the potential impacts on two rare bird species which breed on Unst. We are concerned that breeding pairs in the area would be disturbed by the rocket launches. The applicant has proposed some measures to offset predicted impacts but we do not think these would be enough. We asked for more information on how impacts on these birds will be avoided. This has also been addressed by the ‘no-launch’ period and the requirement for a breeding bird protection plan to be submitted, if the application is granted.

If the application is granted, it is really important that the Council does not agree to a change in this no-launch period unless studies carried out, further consultation has taken place and the Council is satisfied it would not have an adverse impact on the SPA.

We are really pleased that the condition proposed by the Council is worded so that a new application would need to be submitted if they wanted to apply to change the 'no-launch' period.

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A view of the loch at Abernethy
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Timeline

  • March 2022
    Shetland Island Council is minded to grant permission, with conditions attached

  • January 2022
    RSPB Scotland withdraw our objection, subject to a condition to secure a no-launch period
  • November 2021
    The Applicant submits an addendum to their EIA, agreeing to a no-launch period between mid-May and end of June.

  • March 2021
    The RSPB formally objects to the application, asking for further assessment and information 

  • January 2021
    Application was submitted to Shetland Island Council

  • May 2020
    The applicant carried out public consultation on the proposal

Further reading

Useful links

Key Species Affected