Conservation bodies have been challenged on how they would protect the natural habitat they say is threatened by a planned Coul Links golf development.
Communities for Coul (C4C), which is behind revived plans for the golf course, says current management of the Sutherland site poses the greatest risk to the coastal environment.
It argues that its plans would see the area restored and protected.
What are the conservation bodies’ concerns?
The Conservation Coalition’s fears remain that a development of the type and scale planned would impact on national and international protected areas.
It encouraged “anyone concerned about saving nature” to contact their local MSP.
A bid by a previous group to develop a golf course on at Coul Links was rejected by Scottish Ministers in 2020 after a public inquiry.
Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, Plantlife, Marine Conservation Society, the National Trust for Scotland, RSPB Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) were among the objectors.
C4C lodged a pre-Planning Application Notice (PAN) for its renewed plans with Highland Council in June.
A public exhibition will be held in Embo Community Centre on July 27 and an online presentation will also be held in August.
The group says it has responded to concerns raised previously in developing the new plans.
This includes a comprehensive plan to restore and protect the Coul Links Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) on the shores of the Dornoch Firth.
This, it argues, will perpetually protect the coastal environment and help transform the area economically and create jobs.
Natural features ‘will be largely destroyed’
The Conservation Coalition argues the new plans don’t appear to address the environmental concerns that were part of the previous refusal.
It says concern remains that the development would result in “irreparable harm to the complex dune habitat which is home to a wide range of wildlife”.
However, C4C has hit back, saying environmental experts have predicted natural features at Coul Links, cited in the wider Loch Fleet area’s designation as a SSSI, will be largely destroyed within the coming decade under existing management arrangements.
It says one expert botanist said the vegetation of the dune slacks is “now mostly indistinct from roadside ditches” and the dune heath is “turning into nondescript scrub”.
The scientist warned that “soon there will be nothing much left worth preserving”.
C4C says a changing climate and increasing nitrogen deposition have promoted the spread of invasive species and other changes that reduce the diversity and distinctiveness of the links.
This means it is no longer sufficient just to protect the links, the area must first be restored, it says, and “that costs real money”.
The group claims the golf course, on 1% of the SSSI, would provide the funding and manpower for the full remediation and sustainable protection of the entire Coul Links section of the protected site.
The courses owners say they are committed to working closely with NatureScot to achieve that goal.
C4C director Gordon Sutherland said: “The knee-jerk reaction of these powerful and influential charities is disappointing and it is noticeable that they offer no alternative solutions for the long-term protection and stewardship of this beautiful area.
“We would be very interested to hear what they have to say on that important issue, as I am sure many of their supporters and others would.”
Two sides could work together ‘in an ideal world’
He said the organisations have been “very selective” and “far from accurate” in what they have told supporters.
Mr Sutherland said in an ideal world C4C would work with the conservation bodies for the long-term benefit of the Coul Links area “rather than just being the target of their latest well-resourced, but one-sided campaigns”.
“At the very least we would hope their supporters take some time to look beyond what they are being told.”
A community ballot held by C4C last year showed 69.2% of people in favour of the course in a 44.4% turn-out.
Kenna Chisholm, for the coalition, said it is hoped the two sides can have a “meaningful discussion” about the plans.
“While there aren’t detailed plans available yet, from the information in the PAN it seems the area of proposed development is the same and as such we are deeply concerned.
“We are currently in both a nature and climate emergency and it should be clear that a damaging development on a site protected for nature, such as Coul Links, isn’t acceptable.”
She said SWT managed the site under an agreement with the landowner for 25 years and NatureScot now has a similar arrangement.
“This means that developing the site for a golf course is not needed to deliver improvements and is much more likely to cause irreparable harm to the dune system.
“We look forward to discussing our concerns with C4C directly.”
A NatureScot spokeswoman said it has some concerns about the golf course being located within Loch Fleet SSSI.
It has met with C4C to discuss reducing potential impacts, including advice on surveys and assessments needed to support a new application.
“We have also entered into a management agreement with the owner of Coul Links and are working closely to control areas of invasive scrub and weeds.”
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