Skye distress at threat from the skies

Plan for helicopter day-trips over island's most rugged ridge alarms climbers and conservationists
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The Independent Online
A proposal to run pounds 30-a-head helicopter rides over the Cuillin ridge on the Isle of Skye, the most rugged mountain landscape in Britain, has alarmed climbers and conservationists.

The "antlered Cuillin", as the island poet Sorley MacLean so accurately described them, rise directly from the sea to form a chain of peaks over 3,000ft. The precipitous ridge and wild corries are the preserve of climbers, walkers and golden eagles.

But the sense of wilderness in what is a relatively small area of the Highlands - it can be traversed on foot in a day - is threatened by a proposal from a London-based firm to run tourist helicopter rides. Skye Helicopters, a subsidiary of MFH Helicopters Ltd, wants to station two four-seater Robinson R44s at Sligachan, the nearest point to the range on the island's main road. At peak times in the spring and summer there would 10-minute flights at pounds 30 a seat.

Tomorrow is the deadline for objections to the company's planning application for three helipads - a concrete strip 50m by 25m - a cabin, and lavatories on land owned by the Sligachan Hotel.

Although word of the scheme was slow to filter out, scores of objections are piling up at the planning office in Portree, the island's main town. The Mountaineering Council of Scotland has received copies of at least 30.

"The main fear is the loss of the feeling of being in a wild landscape," Mike Dales, the council's access and conservation officer, said. "That's the main reason people go to Skye and it is an intangible but important part of the Skye economy."

Sir Chris Bonington, president of the Alpine Club, said Skye would be damaging its most precious resource. "The combination of noise and visual pollution is appalling."

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and Scottish Natural Heritage are concerned about the effect on rare bird populations, particularly the golden eagle.

MFH insists that the helicopters would not be intrusive and that the scheme would only go ahead if it won local backing. Edward Wood, a director of MFH, said four seasonal jobs would be created and the helicopters could assist in mountain rescues.

"It would appear from our research that there is a large number of people who may not be super-fit but would like to see the Cuillin range," Mr Wood said. "Only a small proportion of time would be spent over the northern Cuillin and one can adjust flight patterns ... so there is minimal intrusion for climbers."

Local opinion is divided. The majority in Sconser, three miles from Sligachan, are content for the flights to go ahead. "Four jobs are important to an area where employment is always a bit sticky," Neil Maclean, the town clerk, said.

But Sandy Coghill and his family, Sligachan's only residents apart from the hotel, are opposed. Mr Coghill owns a campsite used by climbers and walkers and fears the flights will alienate traditional visitors.

Paddy O'Neill, president of the Fell and Rock Club, who proposed to his wife, Janet, 23 years ago by Loch Coruisk in the shadow of the Cuillin, also objects. "Imagine having to shout over the sound of a helicopter where there should be just the sighing of the wind."