Nature quango denies paying off laird

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The Independent Online
A Highland laird whose family estate will receive pounds 129,000 from the taxpayer for not clear-felling precious woodlands is to leave the board of the Government's nature adviser, Scottish Natural Heritage, which agreed the payment.

Lord Strathnaver risks gaining the notoriety of his ancestor, the first Duke of Sutherland, an architect of the Highland Clearances, over the compensation deal with SNH.

The trustees of the Sutherland Estates will receive a one-off payment of pounds 129,000 for a 100-year management agreement covering 2,600 acres of forest, heath, saltmarsh and sand dunes by Loch Fleet in the far north- west of Scotland.

The crucial part of the agreement covers 100 acres of Balblair Woods which contains the only genetically viable colony of one-flowered wintergreen and other rare plants and lichen.

Magnus Magnusson, the quizmaster chairman of SNH, said the board had nothing to be ashamed of: "Lord Strathnaver is not in any way holding the nation to ransom."

The payment represents the difference between the amount the estate could realise by cutting the timber in a commercial operation and managing it for nature conservation. Some of the Scots pines will still be felled and the revenue shared between SNH and the estate.

Labour MPs with an interest in land reform condemned the arrangement. The frontbencher Brian Wilson said legislation permitting payments to landowners for not carrying out threatened damage was "bizarre and ripe for review." Calum MacDonald, MP for the Western Isles, wrote earlier this month to SNH calling for Lord Strathnaver's resignation. "It was untenable for somebody sitting on the SNH board, and presumably describing himself as a conservationist, to be applying for compensation."

"The politics of all this has overtaken the facts," said an SNH spokesman. "We are not paying money just to stop trees being cut down. There is the bonus of a 2,600-acre nature reserve - open to the public - which is going to be a spectacular place for scientists and naturalists."