John Calls on Scottish Government to Reject Coul Links Application

Yesterday (Wednesday 15th January) John led a Member’s Debate in the Chamber ahead of World Wetland’s Day 2020 on February 2nd. In his speech to MSPs John highlighted the valuable role Scotland’s protected Wetlands serve in protecting biodiverse habitats across Scotland for many species and the dangers posed to them by climate change and human developments.


Drawing comparisons with the Foveran Links at Menie which are now facing losing their protected designations following the construction of the Trump Golf Course, John urged Scottish Ministers to reject the Coul Links application to prevent history repeating itself.

You can read John’s speech below or watch it here:



“I thank members from across the chamber for their support, and I thank the many organisations that provided briefings for the debate.

Like many others, the Scottish Government has declared a climate emergency, so we know that the status quo is not an option. We must review everything that we do and, most important, we must change our outlook and our actions. People have seen the graphic and disastrous consequences of climate breakdown in Australia and Indonesia. We have all seen the horrendous pictures on our television screens, which have prompted a lot of discussion that might not otherwise have taken place. We need to focus our attention on the need to protect Scotland’s precious environment.

World wetlands day is on 2 February, and the debate is part of it. I commend the Scottish Government for its active promotion of the year of coasts and waters.

I do not think that too many people set out to destroy our environment; however, there are some selfish individuals, organisations, corporations and Governments whose flawed priorities remain unchanged and whose unwillingness to take any responsibility for addressing the global emergency must be condemned. They must be taken to task.

Ramsar sites are classified under the convention on wetlands of international importance. The mission of the convention is:

“The conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local and national actions and international co-operation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world.”

The United Kingdom signed up to the convention in 1976. Globally, 2,200 sites across 169 countries are included on a list of wetlands of international importance: the Ramsar list. We in Scotland are honoured, as we have 521 Ramsar sites covering a total of about 313,000 hectares that are designated as internationally important wetlands.

Most Ramsar sites in Scotland are linked to the Natura 2000 network, either as a special protection area or a special area of conservation, and all of them are underpinned by designation as sites of special scientific interest.

The sites are of importance for many reasons, not least for their wide variety of water birds, bogs, lochs, coastal wetlands and other water-dependent habitats and species. Such habitats are a unique home for a wide array of birds, fish, mammals and invertebrates and they provide hunting grounds for many other predator species. Scotland’s wetlands also produce significant benefits to the overall environment by providing flood control and water filtration.

The climate emergency and continued development of such sites pose an existential threat to the future of Scotland’s wetlands and their species. Therefore, the motion

“Welcomes calls on the Scottish Government encouraging it to support continued and greater protection for Scotland’s wetlands.”

Scotland is also globally important for peatlands and the world’s largest expanse of blanket bog is at Forsinard in the flow country in the north of my region. In 2020, Scotland’s important wetlands will be celebrated with the year of coasts and waters.

Wetlands can provide nature-based solutions to climate change by storing carbon and helping to mitigate more frequent storms and droughts. Globally, peatland stores nearly 30 per cent of all the carbon that is stored on land. Although the Scottish Government’s peatland action fund, biodiversity challenge fund and agri-environment climate scheme have helped to improve them, wetlands are still threatened by climate change and changes in land use, which are two of the key drivers of biodiversity loss that were identified in the “State of Nature 2019” report.

Our wetlands are also under threat from the spread of invasive non-native species. Scotland hosts most of the water catchments in the UK that are yet to be affected by the spread of invasive species; however, effective biodiversity security measures are needed now to avoid damage from that intensifying threat.

Sadly, nature is in decline, with 11 per cent of species being at risk of extinction. A step change in narrative, policy and practice is necessary to reverse that situation and to address the climate emergency. As I said, climate change and changes in land use are two of the key drivers of biodiversity loss identified by the “State of Nature 2019” report.

Imagine that someone had 14-plus hectares of internationally important, unique and irreplaceable dune habitats and that there was a proposal that could cause significant disruption to the natural dune processes and ecosystems. If that proposal would bring about the spread of fertilisers and pesticides across the site, and prompt the widespread risk of disturbance to many of the sensitive species and habitats from increased human use of the site, I hope that all members in the chamber would have grave concerns about it.

We know that hydrological change and pollution are two key drivers in the decline of natural diversity, which is also identified in “State of Nature 2019”. The global assessment report on biodiversity and ecosystem services identifies that changes in land and sea use are the most important drivers in the loss of nature.

If such a destructive proposal existed, we would hope that the Scottish Government would recognise the site’s national importance in relation to our natural heritage; I am gratified to say that it has. We hope that the Scottish Government would call in a planning application that would have such disastrous consequences, and it has. The site is Coul Links in east Sutherland, which I represent, and the proposal is to build a golf course on that site of world significance. The proposal has been considered at a public inquiry, the reporters have submitted their recommendations and the planning minister, Kevin Stewart, is now deliberating. I accept that ministers cannot comment on live planning matters, but they can discuss the generalities, as outlined in my motion.

Why is that planning decision so significant? If that damaging proposal were given the go-ahead, it would send a clear signal to those around the world who are watching the case. It could have implications for the future of all protected sites in Scotland.

I readily accept that each planning case is considered on its merits, but if consent were given to such a proposal, it would be more difficult to refuse future applications to develop sites with similar levels of protection and conservation designations. It would also cast doubt on the Scottish Government’s commitment to address the climate and nature emergency. It could affect Scotland’s performance against the Aichi global nature targets—in particular, it could affect performance on target 11 regarding conserving protected wildlife sites, but it could also affect targets 5, 12 and 14. It would also suggest that the Scottish Government does not have regard to the views of Scottish Natural Heritage—a Government organisation that takes an evidence-based approach to all matters and has opposed the proposal.

Scotland has declared a climate emergency. The Scottish Wildlife Trust—one of the many organisations that provided information for the debate—tells us that progress on sustainable development goal has stalled; a joined-up approach is needed to fully achieve those goals; the goals are designed to be interconnected, but the current approach is fractured; and a natural climate solution can help to achieve the goals and reflect the interconnectedness of climate change and biodiversity in rural and urban areas.

Ministers should show decisive action in protecting our wetlands and coasts. They should reject the Coul Links application so that it does not set a precedent for unsustainable development.

I draw members’ attention to a report—

The report is entitled “Reasons for the proposed partial denotification of Foveran Links SSSI”. Foveran Links is an area of dune habitat and intertidal sand. Paragraph 2 of the report says:

“The construction of Menie Links Golf Course within the SSSI has adversely affected the Coastal Geomorphology of Scotland and Sand Dune habitat notified natural features as well as interrupting natural dune processes.”

There has been a “loss of habitat” and there are

“potential indirect impacts from the use of irrigation, fertilisers and herbicides which in time may affect plant communities”.

I accept that no two sites are the same, but there are stark similarities.

The Scottish Government is actively promoting the year of coasts and waters. We must learn from past mistakes, and ministers must reject the application for a damaging golf course at Coul Links. What better way for Scotland to celebrate the start of the year of coasts and waters and in the run-up to world wetlands day?”