There are two main issues. The first, and the one most discussed thus far, is the effect that changes to the three Ls – RAF Kinloss, RAF Lossiemouth and RAF Leuchars – will have on the search and rescue (SAR) situation, given the heavy and historical involvement these bases have had in that area of work.
As things stand, Kinloss and Leuchars host the two Scotland-based RAF mountain rescue teams (MRTs) – there are two further teams down south, at Leeming in North Yorkshire and Valley on Anglesey. Both Scottish teams are busy: RAF Kinloss MRT attended 150 incidents during the five-year period 2005–09, while the Leuchars team responded to 73 callouts during that same five-year period. Kinloss has also been home to the Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre (ARCC), which provides military/police/civilian coordination in rescue-related matters.
With both Kinloss and Leuchars due to close in RAF terms, the SAR situation will undergo upheaval – but the retention of Lossiemouth as an RAF base does appear to make the situation clearer at least in relation to the Moray bases.
“The powers that be have not decided what is happening with the [Leuchars] team,” says former RAF Leuchars MRT leader David “Heavy” Whalley. “Kinloss are moving to RAF Lossiemouth – the only problem is that they will not be able to use the purpose-built MRT section at Kinloss. They will be nearer the helicopter, though.”
Given the end of RAF involvement at the Fife base, Whalley doesn’t see any hope that the MRT there will survive. “I would imagine Leuchars MRT will close,” he says, “[but] the civilian teams are so strong now I do not think it will affect rescue in Scotland. In a big rescue in the 1970–1990s we would supply 50-plus [people] for big incidents. Nowadays we are lucky if we get 25. This is due to the Gulf conflict and overstretch.
“No one is saying what is happening to the RAF teams, they have a huge historical influence and have saved many lives, but things change. I was team leader there during Lockerbie and have so many memories of the station and the local people. It will be a huge loss to the area. The country is in a mess – no money, yet we continue to fight wars in Libya and Afghanistan, crazy.”
The enormous value of the RAF SAR involvement is acknowledged by David Gibson, chief officer of the Mountaineering Council of Scotland: “Whatever the future holds for the Leuchars MRT, the MCofS wishes to put on record its appreciation of the superb work by its members on behalf of all mountaineers and the public over the years. We hope that a way forward will be found so that their essential search and rescue work will be allowed to continue in the future.”
This is echoed by Dave Morris, director of Ramblers Scotland: “The RAF MRTs have played a superb role over many years in helping with search and rescue operations in the Scottish hills. They are an essential complement to the civilian, volunteer-based MRT teams which form the cornerstone of mountain rescue in Scotland. We will be seeking assurances from the UK government that the forthcoming changes in RAF airbases will not diminish the effectiveness of the existing RAF mountain rescue teams in their support of search and rescue operations in all parts of Scotland.”
Away from the SAR side of things, the second change arising from Monday’s Ministry of Defence announcement could prove to be even more contentious, as it involves that perennial hot potato – access. Liam Fox spoke of a “new training area” in southern Scotland, the details of which have “yet to be finalised”. There has been talk of a Scottish Salisbury Plain, while another comparison could be with the Warcop training area in the northern Pennines, where upland access has long been subject to considerable restriction, both in terms of actual training activity and the risk from unexploded ordnance lying around.
Wherever the new training area is established, it will be of interest to Ramblers Scotland, which monitors not just upland access issues but also lower and mid-height ground as well. “We are surprised that the recent UK government announcement of changes in MoD operations has not clarified where and how large this training area will be,” says Dave Morris, “and what type of training will be involved. The decision to establish one of the UK’s five Multi-Role Brigades in Kirknewton, between Edinburgh and Livingston, inevitably raises questions about their associated training area.
“Proposals to extend an MoD live firing range in the nearby Pentland Hills Regional Park were defeated in the early 1990s, as was an earlier proposal to purchase a large tract of Knoydart for military training.
“In general, military training facilities and the use of the Scottish countryside for adventure training by service personnel has worked well over many years and there is good integration with other outdoor activity enthusiasts. But the scale of military training operations in Scotland looks as though it might change substantially with the Kirknewton development.
“If this leads to a large training area with high impacts from equipment use, from live firing and access restrictions, then there will be potential controversy. We will be seeking a meeting with the appropriate UK government minister at an early opportunity to get a clearer idea of their proposals and options.”
It remains to be seen which part of “southern Scotland” will play host to the proposed training area – The Caledonian Mercury has asked the Scottish environment minister for clarification without as yet receiving any reply. But wherever it is – somewhere such as Kirknewton in or near the Central Belt, in one of the huge forested areas such as Craik or Galloway, or in more traditional hill-farming Borders country – it will be very disruptive in terms of both day-to-day life and general public access.
To an extent, the weight of objection and unhappiness is likely to be related to whether the eventual area includes any significant listed hills. In the Warcop militarised zone, part of the problem is that one of the hills concerned, Mickle Fell, is not only the highest point of modern County Durham but also of the old county of Yorkshire, and the only reliable access being via a convoluted route from the east has created ill-feeling. (Even more so with neighbouring Little Fell, more or less completely “closed” despite its status as one of the English 2,000-foot summits and thus being a significant target for walkers.)
This was also part of the concern with the old proposals to militarise Knoydart mentioned by Morris – although there the threat was not just to hill access but to the wild and undeveloped character of the peninsula as a whole.
Another possible – and more recent – analogy could be with Alladale in the north of Scotland, where there have been proposals to partly close a large tract of land and create a wildlife reserve. The situation there is civilian rather than military, but again there are significant hills in play – for instance the remote Corbett Carn Ban – and this has added to the strength of feeling in the debate.
It remains to be seen whether the new military training area sparks an Alladale-type debate but with tanks instead of wolves. In “quality of land” terms, somewhere in or close to the Central Belt would be less contentious than in the bigger-hill country of the Borders – the trig point-bagging and HuMPing communities are not major constituencies, after all. There would, however, be high-profile concern from the Ramblers and other access agencies regardless of where the proposals came. Popular low-level walks exist right across the country, and as things stand the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 holds sway unless there is a clear legal reason for it to be locally revoked.