Kate Bellew, Senior Conservation Planner at RSPB Scotland, looks into the very welcome decision by Scottish Ministers to refuse planning permission to build a golf course at the internationally protected Coul Links in East Sutherland. 

Fantastic News for Coul Links!

Small Blue Butterfly by James Silvey

Small blue butterfly by James Silvey

We are delighted to have received some extremely welcome news from Scottish Government this morning. The Coul Links proposals for a golf development near Embo in Sutherland have been refused.

This really is a big moment for nature and the Scottish environment – Coul links is such an important site, protected at the national, European and international levels. With that in mind it is a huge relief to see the Scottish Government make good on its statements about the biodiversity crisis and climate emergency, and rightly give this site the protection it deserves.

This success has been a collective effort from a huge number of people and organisations in the campaign to protect Coul Links from these damaging golf course proposals. So, enormous thanks to all our conservation partners, but also members of the public – especially those in the local community who opposed the plans too – and all our supporters who have worked tirelessly to protect this site.

RSPB Scotland’s and many other organisations from the #SaveCoulLinks ‘Conservation Coalition’ gave evidence to the Coul Links public inquiry which was held in Spring last year. Inquiries are often challenging, and with so many biodiversity issues to consider – including internationally important dune habitats, birds, rare and sometimes unique invertebrates – this one was particularly testing and took almost a month to complete.

After so much effort we are really pleased that the Reporters were able, in their own words, “to take account of the extensive evidence to the inquiry” and supported so many of the concerns raised by the Conservation Coalition.

Grass of Parnassus by Andrew Weston

Grass of Parnassus by Andrew Weston

It’s particularly reassuring to also see the role played by the oral evidence given during the inquiry by RSPB’s Dr Lucy Wright in relation to the Dornoch Firth and Loch Fleet Special Protection Area (SPA) for birds, despite SNH’s withdrawal of their objection on SPA impacts. This evidence included survey work from our late colleague Alison Searl who spent many hours watching birds on the site and for whose efforts in relation to this case we are eternally grateful. The Reporters concluded that the proposed development: “is likely to have a significant adverse impact on wintering and breeding birds, even after mitigation, arising from disturbance and habitat loss”.

And that..

‘Because of the potential loss of bird habitat and likely disturbance to bird species from construction and operation of the golf course, the proposal runs contrary to the conservation objectives for qualifying interests of the SPA’.

And it wasn’t just birds. The reporters emphasised the development had the potential to have significant adverse impacts on the important insects at Coul Links including an unusually rich variety of butterflies and moths, together with some rare invertebrate species, and the Scottish Ministers accepted their findings.

Significantly, the Reporters also concluded the loss of specially protected habitats, including dune slacks and dune heath, the effects on these from disturbance, fragmentation, edge effects, loss of dynamism and uncertainty about some of the effects on the water environment, meant there would be a likely significant adverse effect on the overall system of sand dune habitats. All these features are what make Coul Links so special. And again, the Ministers agreed.

Overall the Scottish Ministers agreed with the concluding findings of the Reporters that “the local and regional socio-economic benefits of the development do not justify the adverse effects on the qualities of designation of the SSSI.”

Burnet Rose by Andrew Weston

Burnet rose by Andrew Weston

This is enormously significant, especially given the current context of international attention on the global climate emergency and nature crisis. We need to be doing absolutely everything we can to tackle these issues – and allowing a golf course to damage to an internationally important wildlife site would certainly not have put us on the right track.

This decision really gives us hope. It means the Scottish Government are serious in tackling these enormously significant issues. We hope it also marks the start of a new phase of decisions made in the context of the climate and nature crises and that the Scottish Government continues to lead the way on the global stage.

You can read the decision by Scottish Ministers here

  • Its a shame that in this case there will be no harmony between golf courses and environmental and associated wildlife sensitivities.  This is at odds with what is achievable when the two opposing factions can balance and reach compromise towards meeting common goals found at many other similar sites globally.for example Machrihanish Dunes Kintyre amongst many others.

  • Yes. Nature wins! We need more news like these. I hope every leader are like those inspiring officials.

    Although dependent on the environmentgolf courses are often criticized for their negative impact on their surroundings. From ground water pollution caused by fertilizers and pesticides to loss of natural habitats and wetlands, the concerns are great.

    roofing auckland -

  • This is such heartening news, and after such a long wait

    • This is such fantastic news!!!
    • Thanks for feeding back. It's great to know that if lots of people join forces and make enough noise they CAN have a positive impact on critical decissions such as this! 
    • Next time someone questions the value of my manic petition-signing in the name of nature and the environment I have another example of the good it can do!
  • Wonderful news!  Is there a way we can contact the Scottich Government to thank them for this decision?