A FLAGSHIP opencast mine in Ayrshire has been put up for sale by its owners, the Kier Group.

Greenburn mine near New Cumnock in Ayrshire has been hailed as a model for opencast mine development, with more than 6.5 million tonnes of coal extracted since 2004 and permission granted for at least another 1.5 million tonnes.

It is such a showpiece that despite the Scottish Government being committed to renewable forms of energy rather than fossil fuels, Energy Minister Fergus Ewing visited Greenburn in 2012 to open a £1.5 million bridge that expanded the site.

Last night, Government sources expressed concern about the successor to Kier Group carrying out the promised rehabilitation of the site – Kier itself has already restored or backfilled 470 acres on the site.

Kier would not say who the new buyer was when it revealed the sale was ongoing in a trading position statement to the Stock Market yesterday.

About 200 jobs are dependent on Greenburn, with the majority of the employees living within 15 miles of the mine. No information was available yesterday about any threat to jobs or working conditions.

Some 750,000 tonnes of coal are extracted annually at Greenburn along with 68,000 tonnes of fireclay.

Kier is proud of its record of never having had a reportable accident at Greenburn, while the Scottish Environment Protection Agency has given the mine its highest ranking of “excellent” for compliance with 130 planning conditions and 51 environmental licences.

The fact that it is often cited as a showcase for opencast mining means the sale has come as a surprise to the industry, but analysts pointed out that Greenburn was Kier’s only mine in Britain and as such did not fit in with the rest of the company’s profile, though it has mining interests in Saudi Arabia.

The FTSE-250 listed company stated: “As a result of our ongoing approach to capital discipline, our mining operations at Greenburn in Scotland have been prepared for sale and discussions are ongoing with a potential buyer.

“As a consequence, it is our intention to classify its operations and assets as held for sale at June 30, 2015. This will result in a non-underlying impairment charge in the current financial year, but will have no impact on the group’s cash position.”

With its businesses ranging from mining to facilities services – it provides this service to the Royal Opera House in London – Kier is also the fourth-largest construction contractor in the UK after Balfour Beatty, Carillion and Laing O’Rourke, while its recent acquisition of infrastructure specialist Mouchel Group for £245m has made it the UK sector leader in highways management and maintenance.

In its trading position statement Kier said that following the completion of the acquisition of Mouchel on June 8 and as a result of continued underlying organic growth, the total order book for the enlarged group has been maintained at £9.3 billion at May 31.

Only last week Kier announced that it would be joining Carillion and French company Eiffage in a joint venture to "support" the delivery of the HS2 rail project.

Local people will hope that jobs and the training system on the site will be maintained, but they and local councils and the Government will also want assurances about its restoration when mining is completed.

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “The Scottish Government acknowledges the important contribution to the coal industry that companies like Kier make to Scotland by providing jobs and economic value.

"We also consider it important to communities that surface mines are appropriately restored. It is therefore essential that any potential buyer of the Greenburn site provides financial assurance that all associated restoration obligations will be fully implemented.”