The proximity of drilling and the risk of spills mean the island should be placed on a danger list of threatened World Heritage Sites, according to the Swiss-based International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The judgement from such a respected scientific body is a severe embarrassment to the Government, which claims the increasing development of the deep-water Atlantic oil fields presents no threat to the unspoilt island 40 miles beyond the Hebrides, and its astonishing wildlife.
With its towering cliffs, St Kilda is the premier seabird breeding station of the North Atlantic and is home to perhaps a million birds. There are an estimated 400,000 breeding pairs of 15 species, including the world's biggest colony of gannets, and the largest puffin colony in the eastern Atlantic.
Its wild flowers and plants are considered exceptionally important and the island has its own subspecies of mouse, wren and sheep, while its underwater life of plants and animals is even richer. The waters surrounding St Kilda are a migration route and home for at least 22 species of whales and dolphins, including the now very rare blue whale, the world's largest animal. Its importance is internationally recognised by its being the only natural site among the 17 places in Britain - they include Stonehenge, Hadrian's Wall and the city of Bath - which have been designated World Heritage Sites by Unesco (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation).
But the development of the Atlantic offshore oil province, which is intended to replace the diminishing reserves of the North Sea, is slowly moving closer to the island. The nearest block under development, number 153, is 70 miles away and last week Marathon Oil, part of the American industrial giant USX, was granted permission to drill a well in it, which will be the first development in the west-of-Hebrides sector.
The nearest block so far licensed, 142, is 50 miles away, and although the Government has decreed that no well can be drilled within 25 miles, fears are growing that wind and waves could carry oil to St Kilda from a spill, with catastrophic effect.
Yesterday the IUCN reinforced this fear with its report, presented to Unesco's World Heritage Committee in Paris.
It suggested the UN body should officially enter St Kilda on its list of World Heritage Sites in danger, most of which are national parks in strife-torn developing countries. "The UK marine environment has experienced some of the worst oil pollution incidents in the world in recent years," says the report. "New oil developments in the Atlantic Frontier increase the pollution potential.
"A significant increase in shuttle tanker traffic is expected as the new oilfields develop. Previous experience shows that the transfer of oil from drilling ship to shuttle tanker can be an inherently high-risk process, made all the more risky by the extreme weather conditions. Should a spill occur, it is by no means certain that the capacity exists within the region to deal with contingency actions."
The report adds: "The potential for increased oil pollution presents serious threats to the bird and marine life around St Kilda and throughout the Atlantic Frontier."
Even small spills and day-to-day pollution from routine oildischarges could gradually affect St Kilda, it says, and it concludes there is a "high risk to the integrity of this site from the development plans".
The report castigates theGovernment for not having made an adequate response to the fears that Unesco's World Heritage Committee had previously expressed about the island. It quotes a letter from the Scottish Office dated last April, which said that the risks to St Kilda were "minimal".
The report was welcomed last night by Greenpeace, which has been campaigning against the exploration for oil in the eastern Atlantic.
"The IUCN has slammed the UK's oil exploration activities in uncompromising terms and is saying it is not in the best interests of the environment," said a Greenpeace campaigner, Rob Gueterbock.
"It completely contradicts the Government argument that the risk is minimal and way off in the distance. The IUCN has acknowledged that, despite the Government's assurances, the possibility of a major spill hitting St Kilda is a very real one, and the consequences would be catastrophic."
Life Too Hard For Humans
ST KILDA, the last outcrop of the north-west edge of Europe, was continuously occupied for at least 2,000 years until 1930, when the 36 permanent inhabitants were evacuated, at their request, to new homes in Scotland. Despite the haunting beauty of their surroundings, the isolation, especially in winter, and the sheer difficulty of day-to-day life had proven too much. The principal item of their diet was seabird - puffins, gannets and especially fulmars, which were eaten dried in the winter, and the eggs freshin the summer. They never mastered fishing. Now the island is owned by the National Trust for Scotland and is managed by Scottish Natural Heritage as a nature reserve.