The billionaire vs. the fly

The billionaire vs. the fly

Coul Links, Scotland has recently been earmarked for a new golf course by American billionaire Mike Keiser. But a fierce battle has erupted over what might happen to the plantlife and wildlife — including Botanophila fonsecai, Fonseca’s seed fly.

The billionaire vs. the fly
The billionaire vs. the fly News Guide
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I’m looking at a dead fly. It’s been dead for 22 years, in fact. There it hangs, impaled by a tiny metal pin, fixing it safely to a piece of foam. The specimen is a few millimeters in length, but it’s easy to make out the chunkiness of its thorax and the proud shape of its wings.

This is Botanophila fonsecai, Fonseca’s seed fly. It was caught in 1996 on a beach beside Dornoch in northeast Scotland, and it’s part of a collection being cataloged by Stephen Moran, an entomologist who lives nearby.

Presented in a box full of remarkably similar species, the fly does not look particularly special — and yet it is.

As far as we know, Botanophila fonsecai exists in only one place in the world: a roughly six-mile strip of coastline, adjacent to Dornoch and the nearby village of Embo. Its entire world is estimated to be less than a single square mile; its population size is unknown.

The fly does not look particularly special — and yet it is

But part of that world, an area called Coul Links, has recently been earmarked for a new golf course by American billionaire Mike Keiser. He is the owner of several golf resorts around the world including Bandon Dunes, a giant complex in Oregon. The Coul Links proposal outlines fairways adjacent to the dunes, with stunning views of the nearby Scottish highlands. Two renowned golf course developers, Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, are already on board.

The plans have been eagerly discussed on the pages of golf websites and forums. And many locals are in favor of the idea. They say it will bring investment and the economic benefits that come with that. But others, including several conservation groups, are far less gung ho. Coul Links is part of an area designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), which carries legal protections under Scottish law. It is also currently protected under European Union designations as a Special Protection Area (SPA) and as a Ramsar site. The golf course, with a total footprint of 23 hectares (56.8 acres), will occupy only a portion of the SSSI at Coul Links — but it’s a key portion, campaigners say.

So, large organizations have recently joined together in opposition of the golf course — including the National Trust for Scotland and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), a world-leading body that tracks endangered species.

They fear the development will damage a unique and surprisingly rich habitat. Now, with the planning committee inundated by documentation and feisty letters both for and against, a fierce battle has erupted over what might happen to the plantlife and wildlife at Coul Links — including, of course, the fly that calls it home.

Gillian Emerick an Embo resident who opposes the development of Coul Links.

On October 30th, 2015, Gillian Emerick was sitting in her house in Embo reading a copy of her local newspaper, the Northern Times, when she stumbled upon an article with the headline, “New world class golf course for east Sutherland?” Emerick had moved to tiny Embo for her retirement about a year before. The article said a golf course could be built at Coul Links, a stone’s throw from her house. She was horrified.

Embo is a hamlet in an idyllic setting. An hour’s drive from the nearest large town, Inverness, Emerick had thought of it as somewhere that would be perfect for walks. She could also keep her horse — named Mouse — nearby.

The village is located in East Sutherland, a part of the world as far north as the Gulf of Alaska. About 200 people live in Embo, distributed throughout its 110 homes. You can walk through the whole place in about five minutes, but it certainly has charm. It will shortly appear as a contender on a new British TV show called Village of the Year.

A golf course could be built at Coul Links, a stone’s throw from her house, and she was horrified

Less than a 10-minute drive away is Dornoch, the “big brother” town where well over 1,000 people reside. Though seemingly remote and unassuming, the area has a long history: in the 1260s it was recorded that a Viking leader was killed here by the local Earl who, having lost his sword in combat, grabbed the leg of a fallen horse and used it to club the invader. The last legal execution of a witch in Britain took place here in 1727.

In the summer months, 2,000 holidaymakers sojourn here, but in the winter, the place feels remote and somewhat deserted. Gillian Emerick, like many of her neighbors, thought of Embo as a perfect place to retire. With a golf course being proposed for Coul Links, however, she felt that one of the key features that had drawn her there was under threat.

A few days after reading about the plans, she sent a letter in protest to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the government body tasked with looking after the country’s landscapes and wildlife. But she didn’t stop there. In the following months, she launched an online petition against the golf course. This brought her to the attention of Craig Macadam, a conservationist who works for a British charity called Buglife. The group is focused on protecting insects and their habitats.

A pamphlet made by “Not Coul,” a local organization against the golf course development at Coul Links.

Macadam, based a few hours from Dornoch in Stirling, was well aware of Fonseca’s seed fly, which has been found on the site of the proposed golf course. It was already on his radar, because the fly is one of a handful of species that are only found in Scotland, he tells me over the phone.

“These are things that we’ve got an international responsibility for,” he explains.

Buglife already had its own petition against the development, focused on the fly. Word was spreading. Emerick typed out a message to her supporters: “The petition has attracted the attention of the Scottish press and locals who do not want the development to take place,” she wrote. “A support group, ‘Not Coul’ has been formed […].”

Ever since, Not Coul has positioned itself as the local center of opposition.

Around the world, there are an estimated 353 golf courses at the planning stage and 203 under construction. About one-third of golf projects are in Asia, with high numbers in North America and Europe as well. It’s a popular sport loved by millions, but new course developments frequently face scrutiny from local environmentalists. The sport generally has a mixed record when it comes to environmental impact.

Environmental group Audubon International notes that this is thanks to golf courses’ use of water, chemicals like fertilizers, and the fact that, through their very construction, large swathes of land must be altered.

With more golf courses on the way, the environmental issues surrounding the sport have never been more topical. But those issues aren’t confined to golf. The same general discussion is to be had when humans decide to build anything on an otherwise “wild” bit of land: a new block of apartments, a data center, a city. How should we go about it? And is the land, along with the animals that inhabit it, worth protecting?

American billionaire Mike Keiser has enough capital to plant a golf course pretty much anywhere in the world. He made his fortune in the greeting cards business, selling cards made from recycled paper back in the 1970s, when that was a “trendy” thing to do. The firm he co-founded, Recycled Paper Greetings, still exists today.

Keiser is better known now as the golf course entrepreneur who has carved fairways in Tasmania, Canada, Wisconsin, and Oregon, where a total of five courses lie, overlooking the Pacific Ocean to the west.

In 2015, he launched formal plans to bestow a course upon Scotland, the historic home of golf. There are more than 550 golf courses in the country today; one of them, at Menie near Aberdeen, is owned by Donald Trump.

Trump’s Menie course, southeast of Sutherland, has been a controversial project in Scotland. It was recently in the news again because of habitat loss that appears to have resulted from its construction. Keiser and the other developers are keen to discourage comparisons with Trump and his golf business, but for some Scots it’s impossible not to see one in the light of the other. Indeed, Fortune once described Mike Keiser as the president’s “biggest rival” in the golf business.

To sell locals on the Coul Links development, Keiser’s team held public meetings for locals in Dornoch and Embo starting in the summer of 2016. The messaging around Coul Links mirrors that expressed in a gushy promotional video about Keiser’s Cabot Links resort in Nova Scotia. That video makes impressive claims about the economic advantages that locals there were rewarded with after selling Keiser the land he wanted — for a single dollar. In fact, at one point, the word “miracle” is used in reference to the course’s potential impact.

‘Fortune’ once described Mike Keiser as Trump’s “biggest rival” in the golf business

At Keiser’s Coul Links course, developers have promised 250 new local jobs. Furthermore, visitors who come to play on the course would be expected to spend money in the local area, further boosting the economy. That prospect has fired up a lot of locals.

But for others, those hopes have been tempered by the present state of the golf industry in Scotland. A spokesman for Scottish Golf, the governing body for the sport in the country, told me via email that the industry currently faces “challenges.” He pointed to statistics that show adult playing membership fell by 20 percent between 2007 and 2016, though there was a less severe drop, 1 percent, between 2015 and 2016. Trump’s courses, to take one example, are losing money.

Keiser’s business partner and man on the ground in Scotland is fellow American Todd Warnock, who has already redeveloped some property in Dornoch. This includes the Links House Hotel and the old courthouse. But building on an area of protected and naturally rich land is a different story for some, which has led to the debate around what a golf course might do to the species that live at Coul Links — including Fonseca’s seed fly.

The Botanophila fonsecai, or the Fonseca's Seedfly, can only be found at Coul Links and in the surrounding landscape.

There are more than 110,000 fly species in the world and more than 7,000 in the UK alone. Botanophila fonsecai was discovered in the 1960s by a fly expert called Evelyn Cecil Muschamp d’Assis Fonseca. He visited the area during the summer, when the flies break out of their pupae buried in the ground, eager to buzz off and find a mate. A friend and fellow bug enthusiast, Michael Ackland, named the fly after Fonseca 30 years later.

It is admittedly almost impossible to tell a Fonseca’s seed fly apart from the many other seed fly species, but an expert can make the identification by examining the genitalia under a microscope. Craig Macadam at Buglife says that, to the untrained eye, the distinguishing features are barely visible. But to an entomologist, the exact placement of tiny hairs and the subtly different shapes of the reproductive organs are a sure-fire way to tell one species apart from another.

Though flies may seem insignificant, Macadam points out that they are important workhorses in many ecosystems. Like bees, some help to pollinate plants. Others control the populations of certain invertebrates by feeding on them. In turn, flies themselves generally provide an important source of food for birds, bats, and amphibians.

“If I had to weigh a fly up against jobs for our young people, I don’t think there’s any contest.”

Thanks to Buglife’s efforts, and perhaps the sheer strangeness of Fonseca’s seed fly being restricted to this remote bit of Scotland, the species has received more media coverage than much of the other wildlife that lives here.

It fails to impress some. One Dornoch resident said to me, “If I had to weigh a fly up against jobs for our young people, I don’t think there’s any contest.”

Official figures suggest unemployment in the highlands is lower than the Scottish national average. It was recently announced that a government target to reduce youth unemployment in Scotland was met four years early. However, the number of people in insecure work in Scotland has risen in recent years.

Meanwhile, the developers insist they’re just as concerned about the fly as anyone else.

“I’ve got a strong history of environmentalism,” Warnock told me over the phone. “And has Mike Keiser.”

“I have had six public meetings, I’ve hired the very best people I could. In every aspect of it,” Warnock said.

As for the seed fly, Warnock believes it may be more common in the area than scientists think. A survey carried out by the developers last year found four individuals at Coul Links, three females and one male.

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

Entomologist Stephen Moran at home in Inverness with specimens of the extremely rare Fonseca’s Seedfly.

Buglife remains concerned that the known global range of the fly appears extremely limited. Any major changes to its habitat could still be problematic, the group says. Another British conservation group campaigning against the golf course at Coul Links is the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB). Many bird species have also been observed on the site, including the curlew, wigeon, skylark, warbler, ringed plover, and whinchat. A spokeswoman for RSPB told me the developers have refused to engage with them — something Warnock says is “complete nonsense.”

“We’ve reached out to RSPB. I have never had a phone call from RSPB. We’ve offered RSPB. We’ve offered [local ecologist] Tom Dargie. We’ve offered Scottish Wildlife Trust the opportunity to come to the site.”

“Not one has responded,” he says.

However, the RSPB recently published a blog post in which it says it and other groups including Buglife wrote to Warnock and Keiser in August 2016 but received no reply. The charity included a copy of the letter.

I asked Warnock about this via email. His colleague replied with a statement saying:

“The letter from RSPB in October, 2016 to our previous agents, pre-dates the development of a formal plan for Coul Links and the Environmental Impact Statement.

“At that time, all interested parties were again invited to attend future public consultations and engage with members of our team.”

I wanted to know more about what local people think about the golf course at Coul Links, so I traveled to Sutherland to meet with some of them. Tom Dargie is a 70-year-old professional ecologist and one of the UK’s foremost experts on dune habitats. Coincidentally, he has lived near Embo for 25 years and is a member of the “Not Coul” group. He can see the proposed golf site, he tells me, from his house.

Dargie is no stranger to Scottish golf courses planned by American billionaires. He was employed by Trump to produce an ecology report on the dune-straddling course at Menie. He concluded that Trump’s course would adversely impact biodiversity in the area, but he thought that a portion of the habitat would also see a small net benefit. At a public inquiry, Trump announced that Dargie was “a big fan” of the project — a claim Dargie says he found “jaw-dropping.”

“They knew from the outset, I told them, ‘I am against this development, please do not develop in the dunes,’” he tells me.

Trump announced that Dargie was “a big fan” of the project — a claim Dargie says he found “jaw-dropping”

This time, he is opposing the golf course as an outsider. We met on a cold morning in mid-November for a visit to the site that could soon be transformed into neatly clipped greens and elongated fairways. For now, Coul Links remains a rugged strip of ground with silvery-green marram grass shimmering in the wind.

“Keep your eyes open in front of you for rabbit holes,” Dargie told me. “I know of a big one — a leg-breaker.”

As we tramp down a slope that, prior to the last ice age, used to be the shore, Dargie points out various features of interest. “This is all meadowsweet,” he explains, pointing to one of the plants in the area. “And it’s dying back rapidly at the moment, all this material. But in the summer, it’s quite a tall plant.”

This is where Fonseca’s seed fly lives. It’s not currently known which plants the fly is truly dependent on for breeding, but members of the same fly family (Anthomyiidae) develop their larvae in the seed heads of knapweeds, thistles, and ragworts.

Tom Dargie, a local ecology consultant who is part of the Not Coul group.

As we travel east, the lumpy ground beneath us begins to incline, and the sound of waves crashing on the nearby beach suddenly become audible. We are soon at the top of a feature called “the big dune,” a mound more than 15 meters (49.2 feet) high. “That’s Coul beach,” Dargie says as the sands come into view. It’s absolutely stunning: the coast, stretching out to the north and then jutting east, is framed by pine forests on the hills in the distance. Even higher peaks can be seen to the west, looking down over us.

Kids love playing on this dune, Dargie says. His own son learned to ski on it. Human activity is a part of life here, but a golf course, Dargie believes, will disturb the local plants and animals. It would expose them to fungicides and herbicides, and change the way the landscape floods during winter — an important resource for many species, including nesting birds.

As part of their planning application, the developers have submitted an Environmental Statement which, not including various annexes, runs to nearly 400 pages. But conservationists, including Dargie, have listed several concerns with the level of detail. For example, the statement says that a swampy plant species from the genus Littorella was not found on-site. When we stumble on some during our visit, Dargie gleefully sweeps some up for a closer look.

“Last year, I found it here for the first time and I thought, ‘What’s it doing here?’ It’s really quite rare,” he says, showing me. Dargie says a particular type of wetland, H3110 Littorelletalia, is present at Coul Links, but not cited in the developers’ documentation — just one of many shortcomings he feels have been made.

A heron flew in, and later, two roe deer sprang out of a bush, their white tails bobbing as they pranced away

In the hour or so that we spent walking through Coul Links, we saw various interesting plant species such as juniper — rarely found on dunes in the UK — as well as birds, insects, and a range of habitat types. At one point, a heron flew in. Later, two roe deer sprang out of a bush, their white tails bobbing as they pranced away.

Dargie says his gut feeling is that Fonseca’s seed fly will weather the arrival of a golf course better than some other species here. But entomologists I have spoken to point out that because so little is known about the fly, they feel it would be prudent to be cautious.

I met other residents who were concerned about what a golf course could do to the ecology here, too. Some of them said that their numbers were greater than might at first be apparent, but they feel less comfortable going public with their views because those who support the proposals are so strident. A member of the Scottish Parliament, John Finnie of the Green Party, raised the point in his own letter of objection to the planners.

“I also feel an obligation to speak on behalf of those constituents who have contacted me confidentially expressing their opposition to the proposal,” he wrote, “but stating that they’re fearful of speaking out publicly.”

One resident who insisted on remaining anonymous also told me: “I feel it’s divided the town, and I don’t feel I can speak openly about it.” They were concerned about the environmental impact and felt the promise of economic prosperity was being exaggerated by those who support the plan.

“Most people who stay are hill-walkers,” they said, referring to tourism in the area. “The golfers come and go on their buses.”

Homes in Embo, the small village that neighbors Coul Links.

But others are convinced otherwise. Iain Carlton, a physics teacher who lives in Embo, is strongly in support of the idea. He loves living in Embo — he cites the community spirit and beautiful natural surroundings.

“The talk from Mike Keiser and Todd Warnock is very much to build the most natural golf course around,” he says. “I believe them.”

This chimes with other comments I hear from supporters who, like Carlton, say they are concerned about environmental impacts but satisfied with the developers and their approach. “We trust them” is a common refrain.

Carlton’s friend, Councillor Jim McGillivray also thinks a new golf course will greatly encourage visiting golfers to stay in Dornoch and Embo longer — and spend more of their cash there. He plays down claims of potential habitat damage.

“One full-time, permanent, pensionable job in this village will be a fantastic improvement.”

McGillivray and Carlton are also part of the leadership of a local community group, the Embo Trust, which plans to invest £5,000 in the development and hopefully make a small return over the coming years. But McGillivray says it’s the jobs for locals he’s most interested in.

We met by the village football pitch where a small building offers two vital facilities: changing rooms and the community shop.

“To my mind,” said McGillivray, “one full-time, permanent, pensionable job in this village will be a fantastic improvement.”

I pointed out that he was quoted as saying the environmentalists were “exaggerating” the impact of the golf course on wildlife. “Exaggerated is too strong,” McGillivray said. “No, no, no. I think they have their concerns. These are people who are experts in their field and they’re raising concerns quite rightly.”

For him and plenty of other locals, the promise of money coming into the area is too tantalizing to brush off. The community shop is the only shop in all of Embo, and it’s staffed by volunteers. There are a few shelves of essential items.

“The first shift comes in at seven, and then we’re on in two shifts, till 1PM closing,” explains McGillivray. For a remote community, this is as basic as it gets. But people here are hopeful that better resources will one day spring up in this town. Many discuss the golf course development with gusto, convinced that it will be transformational.

Shortly after my visit, Scottish Natural Heritage published its own response to the golf course proposal.

“We object to this proposal as it will result in significant adverse effects on sand dune habitat of national importance,” the document reads.

And there is special mention of Fonseca’s seed fly, among other things: “The disturbance resulting from the creation of fairways and greens and the subsequent long-term stabilisation of the dunes will very likely damage parts of the species’ habitat, with additional impacts arising from use of herbicides and insecticides.”

However, SNH stopped short of tying its objection directly to the presence of the fly, and overall the response was relatively soft. There is still much room to work with the developers on their ideas, it says.

“I find it quite bizarre, the SNH response.”

A few days later, the developers published a glowing press release, saying they welcome SNH’s assessment.

“It is because we appreciate the concerns of some NGOs that we call on them to lessen their rhetoric and engage directly with us,” said Todd Warnock in a statement.

Buglife’s Craig Macadam was left somewhat disappointed.

“I find it quite bizarre, the SNH response,” he said. “They’re saying that they’re not happy with the amount of land-grab but the developer seems to think, ‘We can sort this, we’ll go off and do something and they’ll be happy’.”

A spokesman at SNH later explained to me that the body was doing its best to maintain a balanced position.

That’s because the final decision rests with the planning authority or — should the case go to a public inquiry — the Scottish government itself. Over the next few months, or possibly years, the debate over what will happen with Coul Links will draw on.

SNH and many of the conservationists would prefer the course to be relocated a few hundred meters west, off the dune habitats and onto nearby fields. But the developers are not interested. It must be a true links course, they say, right by the dunes and the beach below.

When I contacted Mike Keiser’s spokesman to ask if he would like to discuss Coul Links via phone, I got a straight “no.” “We are being fairly cautious with the interviews,” the spokesman told me via email. When I asked why, he didn’t respond.

Warnock also refused a follow-up interview. When I emailed him with a request to talk leading up to publication, a colleague replied-all, apparently accidentally, advising him to “steer well clear.”

Man-made developments are constantly reshaping the natural world, and in that sense, the proposed Coul Links development is no different. Many species shrug this off or adapt. Others, unable to, sometimes die out. Coul Links is blessed not just with a startlingly rare fly, but wonderful species of birds, fungi, mammals, plants, and other living things, too. Natural heritage like that is irreplaceable, once lost. And yet, the true cost of that loss is ultimately subjective.

The debate raging over this beguiling strip of coast is, of course, a nod to the fact that we humans are stewards of the world. But the reason there is a debate at all is because human interests matter, too; they’re not always expendable. There are plenty of people who think a golf course in this area would be a fantastic idea. But for others, there seems to be an unacceptable risk to nature. That’s certainly how campaigners feel.

Jonathan Hughes, chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, is one of those opposing the course. He told me that he believes society has a responsibility to protect the full range of plants and animals that exist in the world — and, indeed, to be consistent wherever possible.

“Diversity is the diversity of life,” he said. “Why would you judge one species against another?”

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