TWO years after the Scottish Government turned down an application covering about 800 acres of Coul Links because of the damage it would have caused to protected sites for nature, a plan is back on the table. In Sutherland, a recent fight has been on for the hearts and minds of people.

This battle over what seems like just a smallish site of special scientific interest (SSSI) in an isolated part of the country, is symbolic and fierce. At the heart of it is the increasingly familiar stand-off between local jobs and economy, and rewilding or nature protection - or at least that's how the story goes.

Among the questions it prompts is, which is more important? The economic prosperity which could be generated by a new golf course in the area, or the need to protect the site of scientific interest on which it would be developed? And if this polarised view in itself is merited?

The Communities 4 Coul group behind the new golf course plan have delivered an emotive campaign. They talk, in their literature of jobs and prosperity and of young people being the “most endangered species.” They declare a need for “repeopleing not rewilding”.

READ MORE: Who will profit from rewilding Scotland? The rich, as usual

The group’s message, there in their name, is that they represent the community. This gives the story a different feel from the one that drew headlines two years ago, about Chicago businessman Todd Warnock coming over with a plan for the site with Mike Keiser, a golf developer sometimes described as Trump’s rival. But is it really all that different?

C4C claims the new plan will be “environmentally sensitive”, and describe Mike Keiser as an environmentalist.. But how sensitive? And how much of an environmentalist is Keiser? Dr Tom Dargie, a coastal and wetlands expert and key voice from Not Coul, a group who campaigned against the previous application, doesn’t see much improvement in the current proposal – though the full planning application is yet to be seen. In fact, he regards it as possibly worse.

“The 2017 first application was sold to local support and to Highland councillors as a ‘Profoundly Positive Environmental Opportunity’,” he says. “The 2019 Coul Inquiry concluded it was anything but. It was likely to be very damaging (“significant adverse”) for key habitats, breeding birds, wintering birds, lichens and invertebrates.”

The forthcoming application, he notes, similarly claims positive environmental benefits. “Not Coul has checked out available information and is convinced that proposals will be even more damaging than in 2017. This is particularly so for proposals to remove ‘invasive’ species which in fact underpin much Coul ecosystem biodiversity: Burnet Rose and Meadowsweet. These are native species, not invasives, and they are vital for the invertebrates, the oil in the Coul ecological engine.”

Aspects of the new proposal do sound better. The idea, for instance of mowing rather than stripping off turf and resowing. But mowing is also clearly not a no-impact process - certainly not compared with leaving the whole system alone. Dargie observes: “Mowing will not create a good dune heath. It will destroy it. Beneath the heather is moss, which contains an orchid that has its roots within the moss layer – so we would lose that orchid if they remove the moss.”

Such observations prompt the question, what damage has golf already done to Scotland’s coastal environments? The degree to which the sport has impacted Scotland’s dunes and links, since the first constructed course in1764, has not been analysed, but, as Dargie points out, “If you take Google Earth and you go up the east coast of England and especially Scotland, you go from one golf course to another on many of the sand dune resources. Coul is virtually the last good, deep sand system which is so far untouched by golf. That’s one of the reasons why I think we should fight so hard to keep it.”

The Coul Links development has been haunted by the saga of Trump’s development of Menie and the ill-feeling generated. Menie is a story that is important for Coul because it raises the idea of potential denotification of the site as SSSI. “We will stabilise the dunes,” said Trump in 2008. “They will be there forever. This will be environmentally better after it [the course] is built than it is before.”

But in 2019 Nature Scot proposed a partial denotification of the site as SSSI, saying the dunes did “not include enough of the special, natural features for which they were designated.”

I was reminded of that community fight over Menie by a recent Crowdfunder issued by Alicia Bruce, a photographer who documented the battle in photos and was looking to raise money for the publication of a book. Because of the dominating personality of Trump, the saga seemed different, but there are clearly similarities. Many will be asking, could the same happen at Coul?

When it comes to development, the question frequently asked is whether the economic benefits outweigh the harmful impacts. The rising awareness of biodiversity decline and crisis has shifted the balance in that judgment. In a Scotland which acknowledges having “one of the lowest biodiversity intactness indexes in the world”, even tiny losses start to matter immeasurably.

Given this, the economic case for Coul Links has to be particularly robust. Is it? C4C has certainly waged a campaign around this issue, predicting around 180 jobs for the area and promising to sign

"commitments with all major investors to prioritise local people for employment".

However, Tom Dargie points out, “We simply do not have people who want those jobs. There are more than fifty vacancies in hospitality, retail and care in just Dornoch and Embo at the moment.”

The planning application and its environmental sensitivity will, I hope, be thoroughly appraised by experts. The questions around Coul are big ones, which raise the issue of how we in Scotland will protect our biodiversity and ecosystems going on into the future and how arguments around defending nature will play out in the event of an Indyref 2. Naturally we all want jobs for our young, but we want a natural world that thrives and sustains them, and generations to come, too.