Northern Brown Argus - Ian Cowe

Paul Kirkland, Butterfly Conservation Director, Scotland, reveals why the Scottish Government’s decision to ‘call in’ proposals to develop a wildlife hotspot into a golf course offers nature lovers some hope.

After a campaign by locals and conservation groups, including Butterfly Conservation, the planning application to build a golf course on the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) at Coul Links dunes has been called in by the Scottish Government. We hope that this means there will be public inquiry and then we would get a fair hearing as we try and save a site that, in theory, is protected by UK, European and International legislation.

Coul Links lie in a part of north east Scotland I had never been to, so, rather belatedly, I decided to visit the sand dune system that colleagues in other conservation organisations were all talking about. My plan was to try and count the sites Northern Brown Argus butterflies as we had received information that a local naturalist had counted more than 100, potentially making this one of the largest colonies in the UK.

I set off in the middle of the warmest, sunniest summer I’ve experienced in more than 20 years living in Scotland. The train journey of around 300 miles took 10 hours but the scenery for most of the trip was stunning, particularly the hour long section heading north from Inverness.

But suddenly we were enveloped in thick fog, almost as though we had entered a tunnel – we had sped into the infamous east coast Haar. The temperature plummeted and my laptop screen shone brightly. My heart sank and I began to wonder if this marathon expedition would be in vain.

The next day was just as dreich (Scottish vernacular for dreary or bleak weather) but my guides and I left one car at the north end of the dunes, drove to the south end and set off. Coul Links are a little off the beaten track, tucked away behind the tiny settlement of Embo. Immediately the dunes rose up and as we climbed we came across small patches of Kidney Vetch, foodplant of the Small Blue. I took some photos of the landscape but the grey murk was still with us.

Quickly we started seeing the bright canary-coloured flowers of Common Rock-rose, foodplant of the Northern Brown Argus. I began my conservation career on sand dunes and have visited many, but had never seen this plant on dunes. A few steps more and we were seeing carpets of this beautiful plant! We carried on and soon saw rock-rose everywhere, its brilliant yellow flowers lighting up grey/green scenery like stars, and it seemed to spread over several hectares. I could now easily believe that this site could hold one of the most important colonies of Northern Brown Argus in Britain, and maybe even Europe!

We only saw one butterfly during several hours on site – of course, a Ringlet, a truly ‘cool’ species. Looking for Northern Brown Argus eggs (a useful survey method) would have been futile given the abundance of the foodplant. Happily, later that day drove we drove inland to another Northern Brown Argus site, and as we headed west we emerged from the clammy grey into the glorious warm sunlight that the rest of the country had been basking an all day. Naturally we saw plenty of butterflies, including our target species.

Why the ‘call in’, and happens next

Despite hundreds of objections, Highland Council voted to approve the proposal to create a golf course on the dunes. Fortunately the Scottish Government has ‘called in’ the planning application, which means that Scottish Ministers will now make the decision, having come to the view that the issue is of ‘national importance’. The decision to ‘call in’ the planning application happens very rarely, so it was by no means a foregone conclusion.

We think there will be a public inquiry, although it is possible that the reporters, who have now been appointed, may make a recommendation to ministers that doesn’t include that option – they could just decide to throw it out. In the meantime BC will be working hard with other conservations groups and the local Not Coul group to ensure that if an inquiry is held, we will present the best possible case for the application to be refused.

Why are the dunes at Coul Links important?

Coul Links is part of the Loch Fleet Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The citation states that it “is the most northerly inlet on the east coast of mainland Britain and is located in the Moray Firth basin, about 3km south of Golspie. Extensive intertidal flats support nationally important numbers of wintering birds. The surrounding coastal and woodland habitats and the assemblages of plants and breeding birds they support are also of national importance”.

Coul dunes support numerous rare moths including a Red Data Book micro-moth, Caryocolum blandelloides, that feeds on Common Mouse Ear (last recorded in 1998), the nationally scarce Portland moth and Phyllonorycter quinqueguttella, which both feed on Creeping Willow, and Syncopacma sangiella, whose larvae feed on Common Bird's-foot Trefoil. Unfortunately the SSSI citation makes no mention of the Lepidoptera interest of Coul Links.

Coul Links is also part of the Dornoch Firth and Loch Fleet Special Protection Area, designated for its birdlife, which is also protected as part of a ‘Ramsar’ wetland site of international importance. The area is important for osprey and bar-tailed godwit, and it regularly supports in excess of 20,000 individual waterfowl. Other key features include eel grass beds and intertidal areas that support seals, porpoises and otters, invertebrates (including the very rare endemic Fonseca’s Seed fly and vascular plants.

More information on the statutory designations can be found here.