Guest blog – Coul Links by Jonny Hughes

Jonny Hughes in 1993 at Coul Links while working as a summer warden for the Scottish Wildlife Trust. The dunes were a wildlife reserve under a 25 year agreement with Cambusmore Estate in those days but the estate unfortunately decided not to renew the agreement and the triple protected site is now imminently threatened by development.

Jonny is now Chief Executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust and a global Councillor for the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature). Twitter: @jonnyecology


I have a vivid memory of the first time I walked the dunes, heaths and wetlands of Coul Links. I remember the cacophony of bird song and the whirring and buzzing of thousands of insects – almost loud enough to drown out the sound of the sea. It was early evening in the springtime of 1993 and I couldn’t remember ever hearing such an uproarious natural clamour.

I ended up falling in love with Coul and making it my home for four years as a summer warden for the Scottish Wildlife Trust, staying on for two winters as an unpaid volunteer in the elegantly dilapidated Coul Farm Cottage. I spent many a night being kept awake by curlews, oystercatchers, common sandpipers and redshanks. I spent many a day recording birds, mammals, invertebrates and the unique plant communities growing in the dune-slack wetlands, which flood during the winter months then explode into flower in the spring and summer.

It was at Coul, heading out one day to see how the breeding little terns were getting on that I encountered my first Scottish wildcat. The cat and I eyeballed each other from only a few metres before she walked away sedately into some nearby juniper bushes. Coul Links is the kind of place where such once in a lifetime wildlife encounters could happen to anyone. It’s a genuinely special place.

It is also a strictly protected place – or so we imagined. Despite having three designations at Scottish, European and international levels, an investigation by Rob Edwards for the Sunday Herald newspaper found that “facilitative” high-level access was given to the developers by Fergus Ewing, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and his highest ranking civil servants. ‘Persevere and these troublesome nature designations can be overcome’, seemed to be the message from some in the Scottish Government.

Meanwhile, Trump-style tactics were increasingly being deployed by the American developers Todd Warnock and Mike Keiser. Why shouldn’t they adopt the strongarm approach that Trump took to getting planning permission for golf on Menie Links SSSI in Aberdeenshire? The all too familiar claims of near 100% support from the local community, that the environment will be “improved”, and the commercial benefits will revolutionise the local economy were employed in Aberdeenshire to good effect and are being used again at Coul Links. Say it often, say it loud and it becomes true. History repeating.

Taken in by these groundless claims and presumably smelling votes, the local MSP Gail Ross and several local Councillors soon expressed their support for the course. Not that there was any danger that Highland Councillors wouldn’t approve the development – they approve pretty much everything and anything. In this case, as with many others, they simply ignored their own policies and the impartial advice of their longsuffering planning officers. They then disregarded expert advice from the Scottish Government’s statutory nature conservation adviser, Scottish Natural Heritage, who have maintained their objection despite political pressure.

In reality, local community opinion on this proposal is mixed and further muddied by the almost weekly circulation of misinformation and baseless claims. Just as the Press and Journal and Aberdeen Evening News worked tirelessly to champion Trump’s cause at Menie, the local Northern Times (the local paper I once wrote the nature notes column for) is firmly pro-development. The loss of one of the most special stretches of wild coastline of its kind remaining in the UK isn’t really what interests Northern Times journalists.

I don’t dislike golf. I’d fully support Mr Warnock and Mr Keiser investing in building a course inland away from the protected dunes, or better still investing in the nearby existing Ferry Links course, badly damaged in recent years by powerful winter storms blowing in off the North Sea.

What I do dislike is politicians at local and national levels who put in place planning policies and legal nature protections and then ignore them when super-confident developers make grand claims about money and jobs.

Coul Links is a study in integrity. The lack of integrity from our politicians risks fatally undermining our rules-based planning system but, more importantly still, it risks destroying the ecological integrity of one of Scotland’s finest coastal nature sites.

Ask the Scottish Government to ‘call in’ the ruinous Coul Links golf proposal now – click here.




11 Replies to “Guest blog – Coul Links by Jonny Hughes”

  1. Thanks for a most informative blog. I hadn’t realised Coul Links had been a nature reserve under an agreement with SWT. Message to all our nature conservation charities: keep buying land, whenever you possibly can.

    And those “troublesome nature designations”. No need for developers to worry: they won’t be a problem when/if we leave the EU.

  2. I agree with everything Johnny says here. I often walk along the railway line at Coul, and I am no expert on ecology, but love the wide open spaces, watching all the birds, seeing the butterflies around my feet and the noises as well as the array of bird sounds it is also the buzzy sounds of various insects nearby, and I wonder which one of them will bite me next!!

  3. Outstanding blog Jonny. At this moment on Twitter the developer’s trolls are saying you have never been to Coul, as they have said repeatedly before. That shows them for what they are. Material like your support inspires local opposition to this development. Thank you. Chair, Not Coul

    1. Tom – thank you. Even I have been to Coul – many times. It’ll be ‘Keep going up the A9’ for me if it is ruined by a golf course rather than buy some sandwiches in Dornoch and have a picnic!

    2. Your information is horribly out of date and incorrect as usual.There was a polite enquiry made some time ago as to whether Jonny had been to Coul recently and also if he would like to come to Embo and talk to locals along with Andrew Weston or indeed yourself.He has not accepted the invitation, neither did Andrew Weston,
      but quite correctly pointed out he does have history at COUL which of course was accepted.

      1. Ian’s Twitter message 3 July wasn’t urbane: “Did the BBC establish if Jonathan Hughes has ever actually been to Coul Links or has he bothered to talk to locals at Embo?It would make a pleasant change for once if agencies stopped lecturing locals and made the effort to find out more”.
        I have declined to meet any representatives or most vocal supporters of Coul Links Limited because I have had a surfeit of development nonsense, disinformation and obfuscation at propaganda events, in the local press and ‘social’ media. I also have a short fuse when people are stubbornly insincere and impervious to sense. The daftest development idea was about controlling invasive Scots pine at Coul Links, where I have only counted 4 mature trees (1 outside SSSI) and no regeneration, growing in Scotland’s native pinewood zone. One suggested venue was Royal Dornoch Golf Club, which is mostly an expanse of lawn, where surviving biodiversity is squeezed to the edges, and I am bored of visiting. I also feel that most of the development apologists are only prepared to listen to things they already believe in, or pretend to believe in, and would be trying to gain some advantage from meeting me. I was also invited to state my opinions at an Embo Football Club event, which sounded mildly threatening, because I haven’t endeared myself to Cllr Jim’s ETs (Embo Trust officials) & other committee cronies. Do look up ET’s hypocritical Article of Association 4.5. A Public Local Inquiry would be a preferable venue. If webcammed it would make good TV. After one event, I had a discussion with Tom Dargie about the only piece of ecological information provided, a small habitat map displayed near the floor, so only a literate baby or terrier could read it. I thought it was at Scottie dog eye-level. Tom thought it was at dachshund level. As fellow Not Coul cats we don’t agree on absolutely everything.

  4. Good blog.
    What should also be noted is the fact that there are nine other golf courses within a few miles of Coul. If the owners of the proposed course advertise for green keepers etc, where do you think they will come from? It will just move the all important ‘local economy’ down the road a bit.
    Golf is well served in the area. Tourism other than golf brings in far more money to the Scottish economy, and wildlife is a large part of that tourist buck. This site is the wrong site for more golf.

  5. I fully support the “not Coul” campaign, in these times if a wildlife reserve does not receive funding, it does not mean it has no value as a wildlife site. These plans should be called in by the Scottish government as it is unclear from all viewpoints as to what these proposals are and how they are being accepted. Is it really necessary to build within the boundary of an ecologically important site ? why be so determined to do so. when there are other options within the area that would be truly welcomed by a large majority.

  6. Interesting stuff.
    A fewquestions, if you dont mind:

    1. You say you love Coul. Why then did you not spend more effort to protect the site BEFORE any developers set their sights on it?
    2. You say that you spent many days recording birds. Where has your outrage been when hunters massacre thousands of birds annually with shotguns? Did you know that the developers intend to halt that horrid practice that YOU have tolerated?
    3. You love to draw analogies with Coul’s developers and the soulless cretin, Donald Trump. I get that. Did you know that Todd Warnock has invested millions of pounds of his own money in Dornoch already and that, because of his projects, 50 locals now have jobs? Sounds like a good track record.
    4. Did you know that Todd Warnock has a home in Dornoch?
    5. Did you know that, after Castle Stuart opened, Dornoch experienced a tangible loss in visitor revenue? Are you against the local economy doing something to fix that and insure their own economic viability for the next generations?
    6. Coul Links is on private land. Why do you never report on the local land owner (who has agreed to this) and instead only focus on the American developers?

    Or, are you saying that the Fonseca fly is more important than the future of a community?

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