Monday January 15, 2018

A rare fly stands between a U.S. billionaire and his proposed Scottish golf course

Mike Keiser wants to build a world-class golf course in Coul Links, Scotland, but locals and conservationists are putting up a fight.

Mike Keiser wants to build a world-class golf course in Coul Links, Scotland, but locals and conservationists are putting up a fight. (coullinks.co.uk)

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Story transcript

Conservationists have become a fly in the ointment of a U.S. billionaire trying to generate buzz for his proposed golf course in the Scottish highlands. 

Mike Keiser, who already has a number of golf courses to his name, has secured investors for a world-class, 805-acre, 18-hole course in an area called Coul Links near the village of Embo in northeastern Scotland.

While some locals have welcomed the proposal as something that will generate tourism and job opportunities, others fear it will be a nuisance and a danger to the area's rich biodiversity — and in particular, to a rare species of fly.

To the casual observer, Fonseca's seed fly — or Botanophila fonsecai — is indistinguishable from any other fly. But entomologists and conservationists know it is one of the world's rarest insects.​

It only exists within a 2.5-square-kilometre stretch of Scottish coast, said Craig Macadam, conservation director with Buglife, a British charity that works to protect insects and their habitats.

​"That's its whole world is that little strip of land facing out into the north sea," Macadam told As It Happens host Carol Off.

The organization has launched an online petition to stop the golf course from being developed over the dune system the flies rely on.

"When you put in fairways and greens and other infrastructure for a golf course, you're going to destroy that habitat," he said. 

"You're going to rip up the plants and you make nice, flat green grass for playing golf on — and that will remove the habitat that this fly needs to breed and to feed."

More than a fly 

Coul Links, he notes, is also home to a variety of other species, including plants, bugs and birds. 

"The dunes are perhaps one of the last undisturbed dune systems in Scotland," Macadam said. 

Buglife has teamed up with Not Coul — a group of local residents opposed to the golf course — as well as several conservation groups, including the Scottish Wildlife Trust, RSPB Scotland, Marine Conservation Society, Butterfly Conservation Scotland and Plantlife Scotland.

Coul Beach burn outlet

Conservationists worry the proposed golf course will damage the ecosystem of Coul Links in Scotland. (Not Coul)

There are legal barriers to the proposed development as well.

Coul Links is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), which means it is protected under Scottish law. The golf course would take up about 16.5 of the 1,200 hectares protected under the SSSI, the developers estimate.

But ultimately, the decision of whether to approve the golf course falls on the Highland Council — and the process could take months, or even years.

The developers did not respond to As It Happens' request for comment, but Keiser's business partner Scott Warnock told the Verge his team "has a history of environmentalism" and has "hired the very best people" to build the golf course in a sustainable way.

'We wouldn't be having this conversation if we were talking about tigers or pandas or elephants. Why should a fly be any different?' - Craig Macadam, Buglife

Warnock also told Verge he's not worried about the flies.

"I don't believe the Fonseca seed fly is a material issue whatsoever," he said. "The developers plan to fund a PhD so the fly can be studied — once their golf course is approved."

Macadam compared the proposed PhD program to "shutting the door after the horse has bolted."

Jobs vs flies

But Macadam has his work cut out for him getting people to rally around a bug. 

One resident in nearby Cornoch told the Verge: "If I had to weigh a fly up against jobs for our young people, I don't think there's any contest."

Craig Macadam

Craig Macadam works for the British charity Buglife. He says the rare flies should be protected. (Submitted by Craig Macadam)

Macadam said residents don't have to choose. Buglife is pushing the developers to move the golf course 500 metres west — away from the dunes.

"As an organization, we're not against the golf course per se. What we're against is this habitat being destroyed," he said.

"They could have the jobs and have the golf available for people to play, but it would save this fly's habitat."

He's adamant the Botanophila fonsecai deserves protection.

"We wouldn't be having this conversation if we were talking about tigers or pandas or elephants. Why should a fly be any different?" he said.