WHALES, wildlife and farm animals across a large swath of northern Scotland could all suffer if an elite veterinary health laboratory is forced to close, campaigners have warned.

Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC) is planning to save £400,000 a year by closing the animal disease surveillance centre in Inverness. Across the Highlands, the centre looks after the health of agricultural livestock, helps investigate wildlife crime such as the poisoning of birds of prey, and leads work on the hundreds of whales, dolphins and seals stranded and killed around Scotland’s shores.

SRUC has launched a consultation proposing that the Inverness centre’s work should be taken over by laboratories in Thurso, Aberdeen and Perth.

The consultation is due to close this week, and then go to the Scottish Government, which funds the lab, for a decision.

Local politicians, farmers and vets have all protested against the proposed closure. But they have now been joined by environmental groups, alarmed at the implications for wildlife.

Alan Knight, chair of British Divers Marine Life Rescue, said: “The loss of the animal disease centre in Inverness will be a huge blow to the research being done to help save marine mammals.

“I have worked with the team at the Scottish marine animals stranding scheme for many years and we have changed our rescue protocols as a direct result of their research. To close the centre with no thought being given to where the scheme will be housed is beyond belief.”

Along with 14 other marine conservation groups under the banner of the Marine Animal Rescue Coalition, Knight has written to SRUC with a plea not to close the Inverness centre.

The coalition’s chair, Mark Simmonds, said: “The UK has been a world leader in marine mammal science and the Inverness centre has played a pivotal role in this.This research has revealed what is affecting our marine mammals and, most importantly, underpins our efforts to rescue them when they get into difficulties. This is why a such large number of rescue organisations are so concerned about this matter.”

According to Sarah Dolman, Northeast Atlantic programme manager for Whale and Dolphin Conservation, the data produced by the Inverness centre was vital to understanding the threats facing whales, dolphins, sharks and turtles.

“The lab needs to remain in Inverness to provide necessary and timely access to all coasts so that post-mortems can be conducted while the bodies are still fresh and collection of samples is possible,” she said.

“Scotland is world-leading in its strandings analysis, and home to a valuable long term government-funded data set. Closing this facility is unacceptable as it jeopardises the conservation of Scotland’s treasured marine life.”

The National understands that concerns have also been expressed within the Scottish Government. “The proposed loss of post mortem facilities in this region could leave 25 per cent of Scottish livestock holdings with significantly degraded access to livestock health diagnostics and seriously compromise the effectiveness of surveillance for endemic and emerging diseases over large tracts of the Highlands,” said one insider.

The independent MSP for the Highlands and Islands, John Finnie, has started an online campaign to save the Inverness centre. “We will see greater difficulties and delays in both animal welfare and wildlife crime legal cases,” he said.

“It is clear that the removal of this vital service from the Highlands will ultimately cause far more damage than any short term profits that may be accrued through its closure.”

SRUC stressed that the aim of the proposed changes was to maintain a disease surveillance service in the Highlands, not withdraw it. But the service had to be “efficient, sustainable and robust”, a spokesman added.

“Many of the views, concerns and ideas expressed by those who have so far responded to the consultation have been helpful and constructive.” A report would be submitted, and SRUC would liaise with the Scottish Government to finalise plans.

Janet Swadling, acting chief executive of SRUC said: “Against a budget that is reducing in real terms we have prepared a plan to provide a more efficient service which is fit for the future, considers local demands and the need to retain a critical mass of important expertise.”

The Scottish Government pointed out that the proposed closure would be considered by a strategic management board appointed by the Rural Affairs Minister, Richard Lochhead.

His spokeswoman said the minister was “paying close attention to the current situation, given concerns expressed in relation to the proposal to close Inverness”.