Coul Links development refused

A positive story for a change – and one that may have gone under many people’s radar (though not of course uber-blogger Mark Avery): a planned ‘luxury’ golf course development on Coul Links, a beautiful, natural coastal dune system to the immediate south of Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve in East Sutherland, Scotland, has been refused.

Coul Links is one of the last areas of undeveloped species-rich dune habitat in Scotland and with Loch Fleet itself is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a Special Protection Area (SPA) and a Ramsar site. It’s home to a great range of wildlife, with migrant geese, shorebirds and ducks using the seasonal winter lochs that form. There is a thriving and diverse plant community, which includes the rare Coralroot Orchid, Sea Centuary, Purple Milk-vetch, Moonwort, Grass of Parnassus and Frog Orchid. There is also a rare colony of coastal juniper trees, and Coul Links has recently been hailed as the most important dune lichen habitat site in the British Isles.

The Links are also part of the Dornoch Firth Important Invertebrate Area, and nationally rare beetles, endangered stiletto flies, and rare lacewings can all be found on the dunes. It’s home to probably one of the largest colonies of the threatened Northern Brown Argus in the UK, as well as several very rare moths. They’ve perhaps become emblematic, though, as one of just a handful of sites for the Endangered Fonseca’s Seed Fly, a species found on the fragile dune systems that line the coast between Dornoch and Loch Fleet, where it is thought to depend on plants such as ragwort and sow-thistles, and nowhere else in the world.

In a press-release announcing the refusal the RSPB said:

Scottish Ministers have turned down the development plans for a luxury golf course on this highly protected area. See our response here. The decision by Scottish Ministers can be read here.

This landmark decision was very welcome not only for Coul Links but in the context of the nature and climate emergency, and the commitment shown by the Scottish Government to protected areas.

This success has been a huge collection effort not only by our Conservation Coalition partners but also many members of the public, including those in the local community, who supported the campaign. Although this may not be the end of the road for the protection of this site, we hope that this decision marks a watershed moment for planning decisions truly considering environmental needs and protection as part of our efforts to meet the nature and climate emergency.

Thank you so much for your support with the Coul Links campaign.

RSPB February 2020

Conservationists have applauded the decision to refuse development for yet another golf course in an area that has umpteen golf courses nearby already (see eg Plantlife, Scottish Wildlife Trust), but how on earth was planning permission ever given to develop such an important area? Especially after the farce and broken promises that has enveloped the Trump International Golf Course at Menie Links – once an SSSI originally listed as one of the finest examples of a “dynamic” mobile sand dune system in the UK, but where two years ago Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) concluded that the site’s special features had been “partially destroyed” with no prospect of recovery.

The backstory to the development is of course highly complex, but in a nutshell an outline planning application (16/00053/SCRE) for the development was published by Highland Council on 21st December 2015. The application included a ‘red line boundary’ enclosing an enormous area of 322 hectares (805 acres) – much larger than a single golf course. The campaign group Not Coul wrote at the time that they couldn’t understand why such a large area was required, but suspected, given the history of many golf developments in Scotland and the UK, that future applications could be made for luxury housing, luxury hotels, and a second golf course.

As if on cue, a second Coul-related planning application was made in late October 2017. This time for a reservoir outside the SSSI to supply water to the golf development. The Highland Council approved this development too, in June 2018.

The reference to Trump’s destructive golf course at Menie Links is not controversial for controversy’s sake, but entirely relevant. The Coul Links course was being pushed by two Americans billionaires Todd Warnock and Mike Keiser who went down the well-worn route taken by Trump himself (before he destroyed an irreplaceable dune habitat): misinformation about pro-wildlife campaigners, claims of near 100% support from the local community, that the environment will be “improved” (the developers almost portrayed themselves as conservationists despite their threat to develop a protected site), and that the commercial benefits would revolutionise the local economy (promising 250 new local jobs and stating that visitors who came to play on the course would be expected to spend money in the local area, further boosting the economy). It’s that latter prospect that seems to have swayed local councillors, and it has to be said, some local people (though certainly not 100% of them, as the many campaigns against the development demonstrate).

So why, at this late hour, was the development refused? In a lengthy and redacted pdf published by the Scottish government (which can be downloaded here) they say that: “there would be a likely significant adverse effect on the overall system of sand dune habitat”; “the proposed development is likely to have a significant adverse impact on wintering and breeding birds“; “that the proposed golf course development has the potential to have a significant adverse impact on the important invertebrate assemblage at Coul Links“; and that “the sand dunes habitat feature would be more likely, rather than less, to be found in unfavourable conservation status in the future” (perhaps the broken promises made to protect the Menie Dunes (many were bulldozed flat or reshaped by Trump to make way for fairways and green) proved critical to this decision?).

The government did note that there would be a socio-economic benefit, but it would not be “nationally important in terms of jobs and expenditure, or in national policy terms“.

So is that it? As far as the government is concerned, the science is clear and the issue is now closed. It’s rather remarkable that campaigners have fought off billionaires with golf clubs to sell, but extremely gratifying. Were there endless miles of untouched extant dune habitat perhaps the decision would have gone differently, but there aren’t. If there were acres of breeding habitat left for the area’s birds perhaps they wouldn’t have been so impacted, but they’ve already been developed. Is a seed fly that virtually no-one has heard of important enough to stop a golf resort? Perhaps not on its own, but we all know that biodiversity is already falling off a cliff (and that we’re to blame), and the fly was rightly and smartly flagged as a sort of underdog representative of the larger threatened community: lose one, lose them all. And perhaps the government in Scotland understands that the public are just fed up with our most precious places being destroyed by developments that benefit so few but whose losses are felt by so many.

Is the tide finally turning in favour of wildlife? We’re not at that stage yet, no, but as Brendan Paddy, Director of Ramblers Scotland, put it: “This decision sends out a clear signal that Scotland’s finest landscapes, habitats and beauty spots aren’t simply up for sale to the highest bidder.”

Almost up for sale to the highest bidder, but thankfully not this time…