A GROUP of four conservation organisations are so shocked at the threat to a protected area they have gone public with a letter to the developers of the proposed Coul Links golf course near Embo.
In taking the surprising step, they say they are "aghast at a proposal which would destroy one of Scotland’s last remaining undeveloped coastal dune habitats".
The partnership of Scottish Wildlife Trust, RSPB, Buglife and Plantlife, is highlighting the area’s importance for wildlife and the fragility of its habitats, particularly its network of sand dunes and the sheltered areas between them that provide a home for a host of rare wildlife.
The partnership wrote earlier this week to the developers urging them to think again.
Mike Keiser and Todd Warnock, along with Bill Coore from golf course designers CooreCrenshaw, are hoping to build an 18-hole championship golf course on Coul Links, just a few miles along the road from the world-famous Royal Dornoch Golf Club.
The proposals have generated strong feelings among those in favour and those who oppose the plans. Both sides have set up online petitions. The developers held two public consultation events this week, in Dornoch and Embo, with all three backers attending, plus a group of 12 expert consultants to answer questions.
The letter from the four conservation organisations reads: "We were very alarmed to hear of the proposed development. We have therefore decided to write to you jointly to ensure that you are in no doubt as to the scale of our concerns.
"Frustratingly, your agents have so far declined to meet with our staff to discuss the plans in detail. This reluctance to engage with key stakeholders is a highly unusual and very concerning approach to progressing any development.
"However, even without the benefit of those detailed discussions, it seems inevitable that the current proposals would destroy much of the natural heritage interest of this internationally important and legally protected wildlife site."
They continue to write that the site is a unique example of undeveloped coastal dunes and seasonally flooded dune slacks with a wide range of habitat types and species found across the site. A large part of it is therefore given strict policy and legal protection through designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, as a Special Protection Area and as a (wetland) Ramsar site.
In effect, they say, these designations highlight that the area is one of the most important and heavily protected areas in Scotland.
They state: "It is very difficult to see how the proposed project could progress without breaching this strict legal and policy framework or without causing significant public outcry.
"Our organisations are always keen to provide advice at as early a stage as possible in the development process so as to reduce the risk of protracted conflict. We would therefore like to make it clear that we would be likely to resist the current proposals at Coul Links in the strongest terms.
"It is unfortunate that we did not have an earlier opportunity to do this but we hope that this letter will give you an opportunity to halt progress on the project before too much additional effort is invested."
And they conclude: "Because of the likely significant public interest in protecting the site at Coul Links we have decided to make this letter publicly available."
Jonathan Hughes, chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, and a former resident of the area, said: "I lived at Coul Farm Cottage and the nearby village of Embo for four years in the 1990s and know Coul Links intimately. It’s difficult to explain to those who haven’t visited the links what an exceptional stretch of unspoiled coastline this is. I’ve personally recorded Scottish wildcat, breeding, little terns and rare plants such as coralroot orchid on the site. It would be a tragedy if the area was developed."
Stuart Housden, director of RSPB Scotland said: "The site is noted for important protected birds including terns, geese and waders. It fully deserves its protected status and I am very surprised that it should be under this kind of threat."
Craig Macadam, conservation director of Buglife, said that surveys of Coul Links had revealed populations of some very rare invertebrates. "The presence of these nationally scarce insects shows what a special place Coul is.
"A good example is the Fonseca seed-fly. It is a very modest little creature but is found practically nowhere else in the British Isles. Only special places provide a home for such scarce species. We have a duty to protect Coul Links and all its creatures, both great and small."
Davie Black of Plantlife Scotland highlighted the botanical interest of Coul Links. "Coul Links is a remarkable place for plants.
"One of the reasons for this is that the links form a complete and undisturbed system of habitats running from the foredune to the slacks. Each habitat possesses its own specialised plant and insect communities.
"It is unusual to find such features surviving on the coast because the pressure for development over the years has caused massive losses.
"It would be a tragedy if, in 2016, we were to allow one of the few remaining sites of this type to be destroyed."
The four agencies say they will make a full submission detailing its objections if the proposal goes forward into the planning process.