IT BOASTS some of the most beautiful beaches in Britain, but it could soon be a case of paradise lost on the Isle of Tiree.
• Tiree, called 'the Hawaii of the north' by windsurfers, is famed for its unspoiled white beaches – but an estate factor warns that sand has been disappearing by the truckload
For sneak thieves are carrying out midnight raids on the Hebridean island's spectacular shores, stealing tonne upon tonne of sand.
A large chunk of Tiree and its magnificent white sand beaches falls under the ownership of the Duke of Argyll's estate. And the thefts have escalated to such a point that Andrew Montgomery, Argyll Estates' factor, has fired a warning shot to the culprits.
In a letter published in an island newsletter, he wrote: "Extraction is still taking place, and indeed over the Christmas period dumper trailers were loaded at Barrapol overnight and their loads of sand subsequently transferred to one tonne bags at the Crossapol camp.
"It seems the idea here was apparently to make it appear that the sand had been imported legitimately from a mainland source.
"I am aware of the culprits and of those using this material, and if you are intent on carrying on in the same manner, I will have no option but to prosecute without warning.
"The continuing close interest of Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH] and Argyll and Bute Council planning enforcement officers is forever present. However, not withstanding this, all commercial users of sand and gravel on Tiree have been warned in writing that commercial extraction is illegal, and that further instances of unlawful sand/mineral extraction for commercial building and/or building supply purposes will amount to common theft. I am sure the majority of islanders understand the need for due diligence on my part."
Island crofters have a legal right to take small scale quantities of sand for use on their land, but Ian Gillies, Argyll Estates representative on Tiree, said yesterday: "The minimal extraction we don't have an issue with; it is the commercial extraction that we do have a problem with, along with the planning department and Scottish Natural Heritage."
Known by windsurfers as the "Hawaii of the north" Tiree is so low-lying it is often referred to as the land beneath the waves.
SNH officer Ross Lilley said: "SNH is interested, but it's not necessarily about the immediate cause and effect, it's the long term potential threat on the coastland.
"There is a long-term trend of sea levels rising, you get climate change and the coastline is vulnerable. It's something the community has to protect in the long term, because they are vulnerable to further erosion."
He added: "We would like to work with the community to find a way of making sure that they get some source of sand and gravel, but in such a way that it doesn't cause long-term erosion to the coastline.
"We did commission a study by the British Geological Survey about where there were mineral losses on the island and where there could be a quarry. That study is still available, it's really a planning issue."
A Tiree builder, who did not want to be named, said: "We bring all our sand and gravel in from Oban and it's a bit unfair if some people are paying for it and some aren't."
He said there were a number of commercial builders on Tiree but was unaware of who was taking sand from the beaches.
He added: "Argyll Estates had permitted it to be taken from certain beaches, but then SNH got involved, it was all to do with coastal erosion.
"We as builders got a letter from Argyll Estates, saying we weren't to use sand and gravel from the beaches, and we have adhered to this."