The battle lines are drawn over golf course plan. Which side are you on?
Tricky things, petitions, in that they require you to heave yourself off the fence and actually make a definitive decision about something. It’s one thing to read up on the background to a complex debate until you feel you’ve finally managed to get your head around the pros and cons of both sides; quite another to pick a side and to have your decision recorded for posterity.
So spare a thought for any poor souls currently trying to decide whether or not to put their names to the 38 Degrees petition objecting to the plan to build a golf course on the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) at Coul Links near Embo in Sutherland. Part of the problem with researching something like this in these post-truth times is that you will inevitably find two conflicting sets of facts online; in the case of Coul, however, those arguing for and against seem almost to be inhabiting parallel universes, so wildly do they disagree on some of the most basic details.
According to the developers – a group spearheaded by American multi-millionaires Mike Keiser and Todd Warnock – the course will “enhance both the environment and the local economy.” Meanwhile, the 38 Degrees petition (signed by over 90,000 people at time of writing) suggests the course would create an “unnatural catastrophe,” destroying rare and legally protected habitats and wildlife.
There is apparently some disagreement, too, over precisely how many acres of the SSSI will be affected. The developers have said the course will occupy 16.5 hectares [40 acres] “at worst.” However, the Highland Council’s Area Planning Manager recently recommended refusal of the scheme on the grounds that it would create “a high level of disruption to natural dune processes” and would cause “significant levels of habitat fragmentation, with the course infrastructure spread throughout the dune system.” In other words, the golf course itself
might only occupy a relatively small part of the SSSI, but it would have an adverse effect on a much wider area.
Faced, then, with two contradictory sets of information – and therefore a potential minefield of Rumsfeldian known unknowns – the only sensible thing to do, it seems to me, is to focus on the known knowns; the things upon which everyone appears to agree.
If the Coul Links golf course plan goes ahead, will it impact on at least 40 acres of an SSSI? Yes. The pro-golf course people say it will just be 40, the anti-golf course people say a lot more than 40, but nobody, as far as I can see, is saying it will be significantly less than 40.
Will the construction of the course do damage to some or all of the rare species currently inhabiting those 40-plus acres? Yes again. Never mind the myriad objections of the people in the anti-golf course camp, including Buglife, Butterfly Conservation Scotland, the Marine Conservation Society, the National Trust for Scotland, Plantlife, RSPB Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust, who predict sticky ends for such exoticsounding species as frog orchids and northern brown argus butterflies. If even the pro-golf course people are using the phrase “at worst” to describe the extent of their fairways, greens and bunkers, we can surmise that things will not end happily for the plants and wildlife currently resident in the aforementioned 40 acres once the bulldozers roll in.
Any mitigating factors? According to the golfers, if their plan gets the green light “private funding will be ring-fenced annually to maintain the ecological integrity of the site.” It’s very kind of them to offer, but it would appear that being left the hell alone has worked out OK for the plants and critters of Coul these past few millennia – if it hadn’t, at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, there would be nothing there worth protecting, and there wouldn’t be any objections to the construction of a golf course.
A development like the one proposed would, of course, create jobs for local people and bring money into the local economy, although inevitably there is disagreement about how many jobs and how much money. We can safely say that there will be “some” jobs though, and “some” money. Not to be sniffed at, but there are already numerous golf courses in the area, including Royal Dornoch, Skibo, Brora, Golspie, Wick, and Tain. It’s hard to see how adding one more will radically transform the economy of eastern Sutherland. And anyway, financial considerations start to seem rather prosaic when measured against the broader concerns raised last November by John Finnie, Green MSP for the Highlands and Islands. He lodged a motion with the Scottish Parliament which concluded: “at a time when Brexit has caused considerable anxiety regarding environmental protections, granting permission for this development could send a dangerous message that Scotland’s highly protected sites are open to development at the expense of the environment.”
If the Coul golf course gets built, in other words, in spite of all the protections supposedly afforded by its SSSI status, what’s to stop the rest of Scotland’s wild places being bought and sold for foreign gold?
If the Coul Links golf course plan goes ahead, will it impact on at least 40 acres of an SSSI? Yes