Breaking Coul Links: The Inherent Weakness of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI’s)

Are you fond of nature? Does your heart fly with the flutter of the lapwing? Does your heart beat faster at the running of the hare? Perhaps you delight in the dolphin’s acrobatic dance? Of course you do, it’s just like TV, only more realistic. But how much do you really understand about our collective relationship with what is left of wild nature in the UK, or the prevailing attitudes towards the many protected areas in Scotland?

For wildlife conservationists, assigning protected status is merely the least we can do. It is enforcement that matters, for it is at this front line that nature finds itself fighting its last battles. Unfortunately, enforcement is confrontational, resource hungry and expensive to enact. Compromise, discussion, debate and reasoned, decision-making processes are the British way. Or at least they are now.

The scientists, wildlife enthusiasts and environmentalists responsible for establishing organisations such as The Nature Conservancy, the original incarnation of our splintered, present-day, nature protection agencies, were less accommodating. I know this from experience, and I can well imagine their vituperative responses to the suggestion that a golf course could and should be constructed on any part of a site like the sand dunes of Coul Links at Embo in East Sutherland.

They would, of course, be acutely aware of the defensive weaknesses of the plot under siege, but they would surely not recognise the obsequious tone of this excerpt from a Scottish Natural Heritage press release.

“We recognise the many benefits the development (a golf course) would bring to Embo and the local economy, and we welcome the developers’ commitment to high standards of construction and management.

“However, we are not able to fully support the development as proposed due to the loss of more than 16 hectares (approx 32 acres) of nationally important sand dunes, and the impact on the special plants and animals found there.”

All very respectful, I’m sure, but Coul Links is more than just a matter of shifting sands. It is a precious part of the Loch Fleet SSSI, which comprises a National Nature Reserve (NNR, 1058 acres), a RAMSAR site, and is a 19,349 acre component of the Dornoch and Loch Fleet Special Protection Area.

The Ramsar Convention on Wetlands of International Importance, especially as Waterfowl Habitat’ is an international treaty for the conservation and sustainable use of wetlands. It seems logical then that Loch Fleet, as “one of the best examples in northwest Europe of a large complex estuary which has been relatively unaffected by industrial development”, should be respected as an NNR. It seems doubly imperative that it should be left well enough alone as an SPA, which is a designation under the European Union Directive on the Conservation of Wild Birds.

You’d think therefore, that no one in their right mind would waste time and money submitting multiple revisions of a planning application to the Highland Council for permission to develop any part of it, no matter how small, as a golf course. But you’d be quite wrong.

You see, most nature protection legislation in the UK is nothing of the sort. It is merely a mechanism for managing mixed use of a landscape in a civilized way, mainly through long-winded, expensive and energy-sapping negotiation, argument and counter-argument.

SSSI’s were instigated as open-air labs in 1949 by natural scientists for natural scientists. They were the product of naive thinking in the scientific community about the adoption of nature conservation as an integral part of good government, but they frequently fostered resentment among landowners who had inherited them.

In 1981, SSSI’s became a pawn in the game called The Wildlife and Countryside Act, and their fake status as ‘conservation areas of scientific interest protected by law’ has been an affront to nature conservationists ever since. It should simply never be the case that executives, officers and scientists at Scottish Natural Heritage (or any other agency) should have to make a case for the continued protection of a protected area. Yet they do; time and time again.

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Loch Fleet is a natural tidal basin that is jointly managed by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) and Sutherland Estates, or to look at it another way, a toothless quango, an impoverished charity and a rich landowner.

Also, Sutherland Estates pretty much owns Loch Fleet, with the nature protection measures facilitated through succession of fixed term management agreements between the owner, SNH and SWT. Many such agreements do not guarantee protection in perpetuity. Far from it.

In the case of Loch Fleet, the SNH ‘Story of the Reserve’ PDF handout states, “…the management agreement over Balblair Woods lasts until 2096, while the agreement over Loch Fleet and Ferry Wood lasts until 2022. SNH also has a partnership agreement with SWT whereby both parties agree to work with the owners to coordinate the conservation management of the NNR. This agreement runs from 1998 until 2023.”

This state of affairs is not at all uncommon, and it is the substrate for much procrastination over the small print in nature protection legislation. The weakest link in the legislative chain is the hapless SSSI, positioned uncomfortably at the thin end of the planning wedge.

Yet, it’s not simply a matter of ownership, and people who care about the natural world (that’s you, remember?) will be confused. How can something that seems to be so conspicuously of national and international concern be a matter solely for discussion between a foreign developer and Highland Council?

In fact, the SNH have objected to it, the RSPB objected to it, the SWT objected to it, Plantlife International objected to it, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature objected to it, the National Trust for Scotland objected to it, the World Commission on Protected Areas objected to it, Butterfly Conservation and Buglife Scotland objected to it, petitioners objected to it, and local people objected to it.

Why is still even up for discussion? Why isn’t Loch Fleet (or any part of it) simply a no-go area for speculative, intrusive and destructive development?

The answer is that SSSI’s are the weakest link in nature conservation because their size, extent, component parts, worth, importance, relevance, and even their tenure can be challenged and overcome by prospective developers. A favourite ploy is to make the absurd suggestion, one that councillors seem to find terribly easy to swallow, that these fragments of nature can be simply uplifted and relocated elsewhere, presumably far away from the scything depredations of careless golfers.

This is why the developers at Coul Links (and elsewhere) simply reach for a bigger pair of wire cutters (in the form of revised repeat planning applications) with which to cut the weakest link in the chain of conservation measures.

The American developers of the prospective golf course are perhaps encouraged by the sight of Donald Trump tramping roughshod over the dunes at Balmedie, and the notion that nature protection in the UK will disintegrate, post-Brexit. They just need to keep nipping away at the 16 or so hectares of SSSI until Highland Council finds a way of appeasing private sector interests while dampening the ire of protesters.

Developers often amplify the trifling nature of their incursions, but in reality, there are no small cogs in the wheels of conservation. It is Loch Fleet itself that is a protected vestige of the natural world. Nibbling around its edges at Coul Links is nothing less than a huge bite out of the premise that protected areas have the rule of law balanced in their favour.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government sits in Holyrood and consistently misses an open goal by not looking more closely at SSSI’s and putting a forty-year wrong to rights. Indeed, they’d do well to look again at the principle of mixed use in and around the many areas of great natural beauty and nature conservation significance. The landscape, where it exists in its unbroken entirety, is the lifeblood of Scotland’s under-performing eco-tourism economy. It needs massive inward investment much more than it needs (yet) another golf course.

The Scottish government will point to successes in other environmental matters such as reduction of emissions, renewable energy, and marine conservation. Yet, the overriding mantra is that Scotland is open for business, especially the golf business. Perhaps they ought to spend a few more million pounds on ‘re-branding’ the nation. An appropriate strapline might be ‘Scotland is Lovely – Come, Build Over It’.


Photographs from RSPB, Buglife and SWT

SNH Coul Links ‘The Reserve Story” PDF