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NatureScot's Coul Links objection branded 'unfair, unjustified and inaccurate'

By Ali Morrison

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The community group behind plans for a championship golf course at Coul Links, near Embo, has branded an objection by NatureScot as “unfair, unjustified and inaccurate".

Communities for Coul (C4C) says the organisation has massively overstated the amount of habitat on the Loch Fleet Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) that would be lost to the development.

Coul Links.
Coul Links.

In its submission to Highland Council’s planning department, NatureScot stated 5.58 hectares (ha) would be affected – 300% more than the 1.5ha calculated by C4C’s own scientific advisers.

C4C claims the agency used a “rounding up” method “not based on any written guidance or policy” to reach the figure.

A spokesperson for the group said: “Based on a meticulous site survey and following the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) guidance, C4C’s team of specialists, led by Dr Andy McMullen, calculated the direct loss of dune habitat within the SSSI as 1.5ha.

“NatureScot, while accepting the accuracy of C4C’s maps, has calculated loss as 5.58ha ‘rounding up’ information based on a desk top assessment of C4C’s maps.

“This method of rounding up is entirely subjective and is not based on any written guidance or policy. Neither C4C’s scientific experts nor their planning consultant have ever seen it in use before.

“It is hard to escape the conclusion that NatureScot have deliberately overstated this figure to create a reason for turning down Coul Links golf course.

“We are shocked and disappointed by the agency’s unfair, unjustified and inaccurate objection to this planning application. Ideally, we would like to work with NatureScot to ensure the restoration and preservation of Coul Links.”

C4C submitted its planning application for the golf course to the local authority earlier this year. All statutory consultees, apart from NatureScot, have accepted the proposal, with certain conditions which are acceptable to the developers.

NatureScot, in its letter of objection, also questioned why the Coul Links golf course cannot be built on adjacent farmland.

C4C director Gordon Sutherland said: “To make the economics work, this needs to be one of the world's ‘Top 50’ courses. It is this which will create an unmissable destination in East Sutherland for serious golf tourists.

“The chances of achieving this precious ranking will be improved by having it designed by one of the world's most famous course designers, Bill Coore of Coore and Crenshaw, and built by the world's most successful golf developer, Mike Keiser. But the absolute fundamental ingredient is the site and its natural attributes.”

Mr Sutherland continued: “At Coul, the Links land is mostly inside in the SSSI. It is an amazing natural landscape, full of lumps, bumps and natural hazards. Bill Coore has said it is the most natural golf course he has ever seen.

“Because of this, there would be no requirement to do any earthworks to create the course, we will simply mow what is already there. This ‘natural’ form of course, and of course creation, is how all the original Scottish Links courses came into being. And natural courses are the most highly valued amongst contemporary courses.

“By contrast, Coul farmland is flat, featureless and, critically, a long way from the sea. The views are poor. There is zero chance anybody would build a course there because it would cost far more than it could ever return. It could not become a top-rated course.”

C4C say its application dramatically improves on previous, separate plans submitted in 2018, by reducing the loss of habitat on the SSSI from 14.8ha. The area involved now represents 0.1% of the SSSI.

The organisations says it intends to restore and protect the Coul Links SSSI and that a new golf course would create much-needed employment for up to 400 local people and further enhance the reputation of the area as a world-class destination for golfers.

A spokesperson for NatureScot said: "In assessing the impact of the proposed golf course, NatureScot has not only considered the area of direct habitat lost, but also the location and distribution of any impacts throughout the dune system.

“Change from dune heath to fairways and paths interrupts the ecology of the dune heath habitat. For example, impacts from the loss of one hectare of habitat are more significant if those losses are spread throughout a sand dune system, as opposed to being in one area alone.

“We understand the desire to have a golf course in this beautiful, natural area, but NatureScot has always been clear that locating a golf course within Coul Links would be very challenging.”

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