The battle over Coul is hotting up.
Plans for a world-class golf course on Coul Links has seen fresh and heated exchanges of claims and counter claims by developers and conservation groups.
The company behind the golf course plans has accused a coalition of conservation groups of scaremongering over the project’s environmental impact. While the environmental bodies have highlighted the alleged damage the scheme will cause to wildlife.
Businessman Todd Warnock and world-renowned golf course developer Mike Keiser are spearheading the proposals for the 18-hole course in east Sutherland, just north of Embo.
But RSPB Scotland has now submitted its objection, joining a raft of other environmental groups.
The RSPB said that throughout the year Coul Links is home to many species of birds.
They said: "Yet, all this would be destroyed should the proposals be given the go ahead. The birdlife would suffer as important wetland habitat would be effectively drained and replaced by golf greens. RSPB Scotland’s objection highlights that plans to translocate or move dune habitat would not be successful as the habitat that has taken thousands of years to form cannot be artificially recreated."
Alison Searl, conservation officer at RSPB Scotland, said: "There’s a reason why Coul Links is so heavily protected through national and European designations – it’s an outstanding place for nature and an incredibly rare habitat. It cannot be moved or replicated elsewhere; should these proposals be given the go ahead the amazing place would be lost forever and the impact on the birds currently found here throughout the year would be serious.
"The number of objections to these plans shows just how widespread concerns about them are not only from conservation organisations, including one from SEPA this week, but also local people who are worried about the impact the golf course would have."
In their press release, RSPB quote David McAllister of Tain and District Field Club: "Coul Links is alive with nature all year round and draws many people here to see it. It’s a wonderful place to enjoy being outside and see some of the amazing and see some of the amazing birds, butterflies, amphibians and plants Scotland is home to – it’s one of our club’s favourite places in the area. We are very worried about what impact the golf course would have here, not only with the loss of the Coul Links, but also how much disturbance would be created once the golf course is up and running."
They also have Fraser Symonds of East Sutherland Bird Group saying: "The birdlife found at Coul Links is very special, with different species making their home here throughout the year. It is important both as a feeding and resting place for wildfowl and waders in the winter months but also as a breeding site for threatened wading birds in spring and summer. These birds would be lost if the golf course goes ahead and the wildlife in the adjoining Nature Reserve would be adversely affected as a consequence. Coul is an environmental asset to Sutherland and to allow it to be destroyed would be a tragedy."
But Chris Haspell, project manager for Coul Links, said: "Detailed studies have taken place at Coul Links in relation to the potential impacts of the proposed development. SNH and our team agree on this and these have simply been ignored by the RSPB in their latest inaccurate and inexplicable comments. The development touches on less than two per cent of the overall site.
"Far from destroying this important habitat, the Coul Links proposal represents the only funded management plan to prevent the site being lost.
"Ironically, the two species they’ve highlighted – wigeon and teal – are actually directly threatened by the RSPB’s plans. At present, these birds are legally shot throughout the winter, but as part of the mitigation outlined by our proposed golf course, this shooting would permanently cease.
"If the RSPB has its way the shooting, and its associated disturbance within the designated site, will continue – the first time we are aware of the RSPB lobbying for the continued shooting of birds within a designated site. Their comments are so laced with inaccuracies that we have decided to write to the RSPB Council to register our concern that RSPB Scotland should issue what appears to be deliberate misinformation."
Mr Warnock has also welcomed a recent objection from Sepa to the layout of their proposals as a "thoughtful and constructive response," and that they are in dialogue with the regulator and are gathering extra information as requested.
Bruce Wilson, senior policy officer, Scottish Wildlife Trust said that their concerns are based solely on the impact they believe the development will have on an area home to internationally rare habitats and wildlife, from close scrutiny of the plans.
He added: "Both Sepa and Scottish Natural Heritage have submitted objections as part of the planning process. We hope that this will result in an alternative plan being developed that avoids the serious damage this golf course would have if it goes ahead in its current form."
A petition in support of the links plan currently stands at just under 600.
A petition against the scheme has nearly 87,000 signatures – more than six times the population of Sutherland.