Coul Links site is ‘protected’ so we shouldn’t have to keep fighting developers – Charlie Nathan

Charlie Nathan, Head of Planning and Development, RSPB Scotland
Charlie Nathan, Head of Planning and Development, RSPB Scotland
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In 2018, the Scottish ­Government initiated a ­public inquiry into the ­proposed development of a golf course at Coul Linkson the ­Sutherland coast.

The coastal dune site is home to many species of plants and animals and is an extraordinary place for nature, which is ‘triple protected’ at national, European and international levels. It is a Ramsar-designated wetland, a Special Protection Area (SPA) and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). This begs the ­question – if it is so protected, why is there a proposal to build on it?

We know from past experiences that major golf course developments on protected dunes can have devastating and irreversible impacts. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the Government’s own nature agency, advised against the development of Donald Trump’s infamous golf course at Menie, Aberdeenshire, more than ten years ago, yet ­planning ministers still granted permission. Last year, SNH confirmed that the impacts of that golf course have caused ­extensive damage and destroyed part of the site, threatening its protected status. We cannot see history repeat itself at Coul Links.

Often, when developments like golf courses are proposed it is with an eye to the economic gains. ­However, the key issue in cases like Coul Links is that these proposed developments put pressure on space already set aside to preserve another of Scotland’s important assets, our natural heritage. Migratory bird species, rare and nationally important plantlife, and stretches of unique habitats can all be threatened by development on protected sites, reducing their allure to tourists, constraining our ability to spend time in, and connect with, nature and further damaging the health of our wildlife.

When planning ministers agree to develop sites like Menie, they send the message to developers that ­existing protections can always be adjusted, ignored or negotiated. This forces us to continually and repeatedly fight to save natural habitats and environments critical to our survival and damages recovering species’ chances for long term survival. Protected sites should be just that – protected.

Protection takes many forms; it is not simply prohibiting use. For example, last year, the National ­Lottery funded a £4 million partnership project led by Natural England (Dynamic Dunescapes) to protect dunescapes through effective management techniques such as grazing, reshaping the land so that it floods, removing invasive species and providing opportunities for native plants, animals and insects to thrive.

These techniques flow from the recognition that dunes are dynamic landscapes with shifting sands. They also preserve our connection with the nature in wild spaces, ­leaving places open for us to enjoy.

Properly caring for and protecting our natural spaces can bring much greater benefits, particularly in helping us address the climate and biodiversity crises. The recently published State of Nature 2019 report highlighted the persistent decline of Scottish wildlife and recent events have made many aware of the need to tackle the climate emergency. We must act fast to turn things around and nature provides many solutions.

The capacity of natural habitats to sequester and store carbon means that nature is at the heart of our ­ability to lower greenhouse gas emissions. That is why habitat restoration, such as protecting coastal habitats, marine kelp ­forests, restoring peatlands and planting woodlands, are known as ‘nature-based solutions’. These help put Scotland on the path to net-zero emissions, as well as supporting the recovery of ­biodiversity.

In their acknowledgement of these twin crises, the Scottish Government has made welcome commitments to maintain or exceed EU environmental standards. Some excellent conservation action has been taken across the public, private and charitable ­sectors to protect wildlife, but it is not enough. Protected area designations of sites such as Coul Links should, on their own, make it clear that granting of permission for ­damaging ­developments on these places are unacceptable.

There’s no denying that Coul Links is an extraordinary site for Scottish nature. As a country, Scotland has committed to preserving and protecting Coul Links. This includes effectively managing the site for the plant, animal and insect species that live there, and to leaving it as a wild space that people can appreciate and enjoy. If protected areas are to be a thing of substance not just rhetoric such commitments must be honoured.

Please call on ministers to do the right thing and save Coul Links. Add your voice to our e-action at

Charlie Nathan, head of planning and Development, RSPB Scotland.