RESIDENTS in Eskdalemuir are in shock after a major military exercise was carried out by special forces troops from the USA Air Force without any warning last week.
The exercise, which was done with the knowledge of Police Scotland, was at Clerkhill, owned by Eskdalemuir Forestry.
There are currently two retrospective planning applications for shooting ranges in Eskdalemuir: one at Clerkhill; and one at Over Cassock, which is privately-owned.
Both are operated by Gardners Guns of Longtown and Over Cassock began hosting shooting in 2018 without planning permission.
Eskdalemuir Community Council became aware of the planned development of the two-mile rifle range at Over Cassock at its November 2018 meeting.
The range is for target shooting with 50 calibre rifles which have a maximum range of four miles and are used in warfare to disable armoured vehicles and shoot down helicopters.
Responding to residents’ concerns, the community council want these application to be subject to proper scrutiny and public consultation.
In December last year Nicholas Jennings, chairman, after complaints about noise coming from the site of one of the proposed ranges, spoke to Dumfries and Galloway Council planning officer Chris McTier.
He was told the applicants had been advised to withdraw and resubmit applications and they would then be considered as major developments because of their size and there would be full public consultation.
Last week Mr Jennings was surprised to receive this message from the planning office.
“As you know, the original application at Clerkhill was withdrawn because it wasn’t clear where the change of use was occurring.
“A subsequent application has been submitted and eventually made valid. The area covered by the change of use has been confirmed as fewer than two hectares.”
It added: “The area covered by the change of use at Over Cassock has also been confirmed and amounts to fewer than two hectares.
“As such, these are “local” developments rather than “major” ones and do not carry the requirement of public pre-application consultation.
“Conscious of the fact that no in-person community council meetings are likely to take place right now, I’m happy to wait for a response from you.
“I will also ask our admin to send formal consultation requests for the community council to respond to.”
Mr Jennings has now written to Elaine Murray, council leader, Gavin Stevenson, chief executive, and David Suttie, planning and building standards manager, asking them to give urgent consideration to reverting to the previous stated position that both applications should be considered as major developments.
He said: “Dr Murray was quick to reply, saying I would get a response from Mr Suttie. Nothing received so far.”
In response to a request for clarification of the status of the ranges, Police Scotland wrote to the community council on December 14.
It said: “A new range would not be able to operate without relevant planning permissions.”
It wrote again on December 21: “I can advise that shooting should not currently be on-going at these ranges.
“This was provided by notification from Cumbria Firearms Licensing on November 17 after a joint consultation with Dumfries and Galloway’s planning department and senior officers from Police Scotland national firearms licensing.”
Last Tuesday and Wednesday residents, alarmed by the noise of machine gun fire and rifle shooting, contacted the police in the firearms licensing department in Dumfries.
It was reported that US Air Force Special Forces were training at Clerkhill.
Mr Jennings also contacted the department for clarification as to whether this military activity had approval.
He said: “The initial response was that Police Scotland locally had no prior knowledge of the of US military training in Eskdalemuir but last Friday I received a message.
It said: “I can confirm that on February 12 the police’s area control room was notified of an exercise in the area of Eskdalemuir between the 16th and 19th by the organisers.”
Mr Jennings added: “Quite where the Police Scotland area control room is, I don’t know, but it appears the notice had not got through the firearms licensing department in Dumfries until after the event.
“We would like both planning applications to be fully aired through public consultation, subject to the highest level of scrutiny and see details of by whom and how the ranges would be operated and who would use them.
“To date, it’s easy to construe that the operators have not followed the rules by operating without permissions.
“This is not the way to build public confidence in what, by their very nature, are unsettling developments for many people.
“Eskdalemuir is a beautiful and peaceful place. There has always been occasional, small-scale pheasant shooting, deer stalking and pest control.
“Not everyone likes this but people get along and generally tolerate differences.
“Since landowners have struck a deal with commercial gun clubs, this has grown exponentially and this growth in both game shooting, high-calibre, rifle target shooting and now military shooting is starting to cause a high level of distress to a significant number of residents.
A Dumfries and Galloway spokesperson said: “The site area of these applications means neither application falls into the category of a major development.
“The difference between local and major developments is largely procedural and all applications are subject to exactly the same notification, advertisement and consultation requirements at the planning application stage.
The developers have been advised to cease any unauthorised operations.
However, a breach of planning control is not a criminal offence and no formal action can be pursued until the outcome of the applications is known.
“Other authorities such as Police Scotland may be able to pursue actions under their own legislation.
“The military exercise involving the special forces is understood to have taken place on the estate and not at the shooting range.”
Both Gardners Guns and Eskdalemuir Forestry were emailed but neither has responded.