Fight to keep special ‘protected’ place for wildlife safe

Home to rare and endangered wildlife, Coul Links, on the coast of East Sutherland in the Scottish Highlands, is one of the few places of its kind to remain relatively undisturbed by development.

The habitats found here enjoy a triple layer of protection – designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Conservation Area (SPA) and Ramsar Site – demonstrating the national andinternational importance of this fantastic place for wildlife.

And yet, despite being home to rare sand dune habitats and the tidal flats being the most northerly and largest intertidal habitat for wintering ducks and geese anywhere in Europe, Coul Links is under threat from proposals for an 18-hole golf course.

These proposals put at risk the home of well-loved animals including the small blue butterfly, as well as skylarks, oystercatchers and cuckoos, and stunning flowers including the coral root orchid and purple milk vetch. Spectacular examples of coastal juniper trees are found across the dunes, as is one of the world's rarest species – the internationally-endangered Fonseca’s seed fly.

Protection has not meant safety

One would think the protection afforded to the site would mean safety, but sadly not. We know that the golf industry is struggling in Scotland, the UK, and Europe – the Golf Participation Report for Europe 2017 showed nineteen courses in Scotland closed in 2015 alone. Developers’ plans to turn this amazing place over to a declining industry could cause irreparable damage, just to add one more course to an area that is already saturated with them. Six golf courses can already be found within 10 miles of Coul Links.

Jonny Hughes, Chief Executive of Scottish Wildlife Trust, spent several seasons as a warden at Coul Links whilst it was managed by the Scottish Wildlife Trust. He has first-hand experience of living and working there. He describes the area as harbouring a ‘special wildness’, stating that it would be a national tragedy if it were lost to development.

The power to save Coul Links lies with Scottish Ministers. The international significance of the area makes it a critical test of the Scottish Government’s resolve to stand by commitments it has made to protect the natural environment.

Objections to the development have come from the Scottish Government agency Scottish Natural Heritage and more than a dozen local and national conservation organisations, as well as tens of thousands of members of the public. As a result Scottish Ministers opened a public inquiry in Dornoch, which is due to run over the next few weeks.

Inquiry reporters are charged with assessing the evidence and arguments on all sides before making recommendations to the Scottish Ministers, who will make the final decision. The Scottish Wildlife Trust, within a coalition of leading environmental organisations, has given evidence at this inquiry, stating that Scotland should look after its protected areas and ensure future generations have the opportunity to enjoy their natural and cultural heritage.

The Scottish Government has claimed to lead by example on environmental issues. We believe that allowing this development to go ahead would set the wrong example to the world.

If an internationally-important, triple-protected site is considered fair game for development, we risk seeing a domino-effect across other protected areas. Globally, we expect countries to honour their commitments under international frameworks, from the Sustainable Development Goals to the Ramsar Convention – we must be seen to uphold these same values.

How you can help

The Scottish Wildlife Trust has been fighting this proposal from the beginning. Our Chief Executive Jonny Hughes has given evidence at the inquiry, along with other respected witnesses who are speaking out for wildlife.

We’ve already heard evidence about the unsustainability of the development from experts. Now, we’re calling on the Scottish Government to demonstrate that unsustainable development in  protected areas is out of bounds.  

Tto continue the fight we need your help to support the work of our legal team. We’ve set up a fundraising page using CrowdJustice. You can also help by tweeting #savecoullinks and sharing our messages – tens of thousands of you have already made your voice heard.

We’ve already succeeded in ensuring Coul Links was called in by Ministers – but now we need to keep the pressure up. There are just few days left, so please consider contributing a small amount before Monday 18 March to help us continue the fight.

Wetlands aren’t just nice to have – they must be protected for the sake of our wildlife, but also to ensure our own health and prosperity.


Scott Leatham
Policy Specialist and Coul Links Campaign Co-ordinator
Scottish Wildlife Trust