NORTH Ayrshire community and wildlife groups have called for one of Scotland's most important and fascinating nature conservation sites to be given protection from the "continued development free-for-all" threatening its future.

In a letter to Scottish Government agency NatureScot, co-signed by the heads of five organisations, the group asked for the Garnock Estuary to be urgently designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

The area is described as a "unique mosaic of dunes, grassland, woodlands, scrub and wetlands", and although it has been modified by the site's complex industrial past, it remains an "incomparable haven for wildlife", including species that have been lost across much of the landscape.

The move to give the area protected SSSI status is supported by independent wildlife experts and former senior statutory agency officers.

The site is said to be of national importance for nature. Photo: Iain Hamlin

The site is said to be of national importance for nature. Photo: Iain Hamlin

A report by the Ardeer Action Group - a coalition of wildlife organisations and representatives from the local community - shows that the Garnock Estuary is of national importance for nature and home to: more than 1,000 invertebrate species, including 99 species of conservation concern, and some found nowhere else in Scotland; one of the best breeding bird sites on the Lower Clyde coast; dozens of rare flowering plants; a unique mosaic of high-quality wildlife habitats which are listed on the Scottish Biodiversity List.

However, this rich diversity of life is under-threat from a Special Development Order dating back to 1953. This means that planning permission is not required for development and activities which would require consent almost anywhere else in Scotland.

The letter said: "We hope that you will see the positive opportunity that protecting the Garnock Estuary presents and recognise that this is in the national interest.

"In our opinion, the current pressure from built development means the process of designation should begin with urgency.

"Sand extraction across the site has had an ongoing impact on the site's dune habitats and associated wildlife for many years.

"However, Ardeer has remained largely free of major developments since the 1980s.

"Recently, there has been growing development pressure on the Garnock Estuary. The Ardeer Peninsula, in particular, has been proposed as a suitable site for developments including housing, industry, a golf course, wind turbines and a nuclear power plant.

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"As our report shows, a continued development 'free for all' threatens one of Scotland's most important and fascinating nature conservation sites."

Iain Hamlin of the Ardeer Action Group said: "The designation of this site would help the Scottish Government and NatureScot meet their aspirations to reverse biodiversity loss and protect 30 per cent of Scotland's land for nature by 2030, while ensuring the residents of Irvine and Stevenston and beyond can enjoy access to a unique, wildlife-rich and largely untamed space both now and in the future."

Anne McCall, director of RSPB Scotland, said: "Protected areas have been a cornerstone of biodiversity conservation for decades and remain incredibly important as part of our response to the nature and climate emergency.

"Expanding these protections to cover more of Scotland's land by designating our best areas for wildlife, like the Ardeer Peninsula, is critical alongside doing more to safeguard and improve existing areas."