Lawyers for Donald Trump’s Aberdeenshire golf course bombarded the Scottish Government’s wildlife watchdog with demands and complaints in an attempt to block protected sand dunes from being stripped of their conservation status.
Emails, letters and documents obtained by The Ferret reveal that Trump International Golf Links Scotland (TIGLS) accused NatureScot, then known as Scottish Natural Heritage, of acting “in bad faith” during the process, while questioning the body’s “objectivity and impartiality”.
SSSI areas are designated by NatureScot as places “which are the essential building blocks for nature conservation”. Such areas are protected by law, to ensure their unique features are not compromised.
However, two years after it opened in 2012, a NatureScot review reported that the ecological interests of Trump’s 18 hole golf course on the Aberdeenshire coastline had been destroyed during construction and no longer merited SSSI status.
The 2014 assessment was supported by two further reviews in 2017 and 2019. They both recommended that the part of Foveran Links SSSI owned by Trump “should be de-notified” along with an adjacent inter-tidal area owned by Crown Estate Scotland.
The letters of complaint from Trump’s golf course were triggered when the denotification consultation period began in June 2019. TIGLS appointed international law firm CMS to challenge NatureScot’s decision to remove the site’s protected status.
A series of complaints quickly followed claiming NatureScot had orchestrated adverse media coverage designed to harm the course’s business interests and reputation, along with charges that communications regarding the review of the SSSI had not been open and transparent.
Sally Thomas, NatureScot’s director of People and Nature at the time, was accused of political bias and of inappropriately revealing NatureScot’s position when she publicly stated: “The denotification of SSSIs is unusual, however in this case we have found there is no longer a reason to protect the dunes at Menie as they do not include enough of the special, natural features for which they were designated.
“We work with developers across Scotland to ensure habitats and wildlife are protected when development work is undertaken. Most of the time, development can take place without damaging important natural features, but this was not the case in this instance.”
After an internal investigation, led by NatureScot’s chief executive Francesca Osowska, failed to uphold any of TIGLS’ grievances, the complaints were escalated to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman (SPSO), the final stage for complaints about public service organisations in Scotland, which also ruled in favour of NatureScot.
SPSO’s September 2020 ruling concluded that NatureScot had “discretion in relation to any additional contact with the media they considered appropriate and provided a reasonable explanation in relation to their actions”.
It said NatureScot had “informally notified landowners of their impending action and formally notified [TIGLS] in writing once formal notification commenced as per their procedure”.
The ruling added that although there was a delay in written notification arriving, “this was outwith NatureScot’s control.”
Aberdeenshire Councillor Martin Ford was chair of the committee that dealt with Trump’s initial planning application. He told The Ferret: “Bullying, intimidation, denial of reality are standard Trump tactics used indiscriminately against anyone or any organisation that does not do exactly as Mr Trump wants.’
“There is nothing surprising about the TIGLS reaction” he continued, “A flood of letters, counter claims, accusations against individuals doing their job, complaints against the regulatory body, attempts to bring political pressure.
Ford added: “It’s pretty much Mr Trump’s standard reaction to not getting what he wants, and his company was behaving like its owner. It was the same when Aberdeenshire Council refused his original planning application”.
Controversial golf development
NatureScot formally objected to the planning application for the golf course in 2008 advising that it would cause serious damage to the SSSI.
However, after Trump promised a £1bn investment, the world’s best golf course and 6000 jobs, on the grounds that the economic benefits outweighed the environmental damage, the Scottish Government overruled Aberdeenshire Council’s decision to decline planning consent.
The proposed 450-bedroom hotel, 950 time-share units, staff accommodation buildings and 500 houses never materialised and today the course employs 100 staff having recorded more than £1m in losses every year from 2014 to 2019.
Menie Links was part of Foveran Links SSSI, and was designated as a protected area in 1971. Before the construction of Trump’s golf course, it was home to an unvegetated sand sheet covering an area of 24 hectares, the size of 33 rugby pitches. This vast area of sand dunes had remained active for most of the 20th century.
The denotification of the Menie Links, part of the protected Foreran Links, was confirmed 8 December 2020 resulting in a reduction in area of 99.31 hectares.
TIGLS’ formal response to the proposed denotification of Menie Links was received by NatureScot on 3 October 2019, along with a 19-page technical response prepared by environmental consultancy Ironside Farah.
The report challenged the robustness of NatureScot’s site surveys when the post construction condition of the dune habitat was assessed. It argued that although large sections of the dune system had been destroyed, what remained was sufficiently biodiverse to warrant continued SSSI status.
Councillor Ford agrees with NatureScot that denotification of the SSSI was inevitable. He said: “The site was designated because it was a mobile dune system, with land forms and vegetation types resulting from the continuous sand movement.
“The part owned by Mr Trump is now a golf course, much of it covered by mown grass of no greater scientific interest than a garden lawn. In no sense is the site now the magical, wild place it was before it was vandalised by Mr Trump. In the circumstances, retaining the SSSI designation would have been very hard to justify.”
The last letters were sent in late September and October 2020, one of which went directly to NatureScot chair, Dr Mike Cantlay, repeating previous complaints and requesting a further extension to the denotification process due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Although TIGLS’s legal team copied all the emails and letters to Dr Mike Cantlay and Roseanna Cunningham, Cabinet Secretary for the Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, the letters seen by The Ferret shows that neither made any official interventions.
In a statement on behalf of NatureScot, a spokesperson said: “All complaints regarding our handling of the denotification of Foveran Links SSSI were dealt with following our standard procedures, and both the Information Commissioner and the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman ruled in our favour. There have been no developments following the denotification of the dunes in December last year.
“We value the work TIGLS has done to protect the remaining rare habitats and the rare plants on their site, however they no longer have sufficient scientific interest to merit special protection.”
Councillor Ford concluded: “We have a duty to protect and preserve irreplaceable natural habitat for future generations, because we depend on it, and because it is valuable in its own right. Almost never can destruction be justified.
“In the case of the Trump application, the tests in planning policy were applied by Aberdeenshire Council, the application was clearly against policy, and the Council accordingly decided to refuse the application. Mr Trump made a fuss, the Scottish Government called in the application and gave Mr Trump everything he wanted.
“Thirteen years on, Mr Trump has wrecked the part of the SSSI he owns but not built the promised golf resort. I suppose the message to ministers is ‘please don’t be so gullible and stupid ever again’.”
TIGLS was offered an opportunity to comment but did not respond.