Early in the New Year, a task force, headed by the USS Dwight D Eisenhower, a nuclear-powered aircraft-carrier, will pound the coast of Cape Wrath in northern Scotland. It means that, even though British forces are not active in the area, the cape will remain out of bounds to walkers and ornithologists at a time when they would otherwise be permitted entry.
The area boasts the highest cliffs in Britain. At 900ft, the sheer coastline is so remote that countless seabirds including puffins, guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes nest within the Clomhor cliffs, according to Donald Mitchell, Highland Council's countryside ranger.
Dolphins and whales are also spotted off the coast. Part of the range, which is also used by the Royal Navy, is a designated special protection area for birds and a site of special scientific interest. Scottish Natural Heritage is already undertaking a survey of the casualties among birds and other wildlife resulting from the ship-to-shore bombing of the coastline, which has gone of for many years. Environmentalists are also concerned about the long-term effects of the RAF bombing the tiny island of Garvie, just off the coast, where the Americans have also been given permission to undertake firing practice.
Robin Harper, a Green Party member of the Scottish Parliament, said that he would be asking the Scottish Executive if it had been consulted about the bombing plans. He said: "This an extraordinarily wild and beautiful area. I do not see why it should be that the Ministry of Defence can be allowed to nominate bits of Scotland that the US Navy can blow bits off.
"The US forces have a record of incompetence. We know that one-third of their casualties in Vietnam were own goals, so it does not make me confident."
Iris Mackay, who lives in Durness, a village of 300 people, about six miles from Cape Wrath, said that local people were opposed to to an increase in the bombing which disturbed the local population. "If the Americans come we will have to fight the battle," said Mrs Mackay, who drives a minibus for tourists along the road, mostly through the firing range, out from the local ferry jetty out to the lighthouse at Cape Wrath. Mrs Mackay added that bombing in winter would close the area to ramblers and bird watchers, denying them access at a time when, because the MoD was not involved they should, by rights, be allowed to enjoy the beauty of the area. The main fear is that any large scale increase in use of the firing range will destroy tourism.
Richard Danzig, the US Secretary of the Navy, announced last week that the British Government has given the Americans permission to use the bombing range in February and March. The US has needed a new range since it was forced to abandon a base in Puerto Rico after a civilian was accidentally killed. It is understood that the US task force includes two guided missile cruisers, four destroyers and two frigates. The 97,000-tonne Eisenhower has a crew of 5,600 and 85 aircraft including F-14 Tomcat fighters and F-18 Hornet attack aircraft.
The MoD said that it has received a request from the US Navy to use the range and saw no reason why the request should not be granted although the go-ahead had not yet been formally given. A spokesman said: "We have offered the site to other Nato countries in the past as they pass through to their area of deployment. The conflict in Kosovo demonstrated the importance of Nato countries undergoing joint exercises."
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