I care about the environment, says Trump (and not just the greens)

Donald Trump wants to create the world's finest golf course on an unspoilt stretch of northern Scotland. Merely creating a "world class" course would not be good enough; it has to be better than the Old Course at St Andrews, he claimed yesterday.

The US billionaire was giving evidence at the opening day of a public inquiry into his plan to develop a site that includes sand dunes that are home to a rich variety of wildlife, on the Menie estate near Aberdeen. Mr Trump presented himself as an ecologically concerned entrepreneur, but when he described himself as "an environmentalist", the reaction from the public gallery was so loud that the inquiry chairman, James McCulloch, demanded silence.

Mr Trump claimed his golf course was more likely to improve the local environment than damage it. He suggested the site was not very attractive in its present condition, though he agreed that it had the potential to be one of the finest sites in the world.

"There are dead birds, there are animals lying over the site which have been shot. Maybe some people are into that – I'm not," he said. The whole site looked "pretty desolate", he claimed. He added: "Before, no one knew what it was. Now they are saying: 'Menie, it's the greatest'."

David Tyldesley, of the RSPB, suggested Mr Trump's original vision had been to create a "world class course" but not necessarily the world's best. But Mr Trump replied: "Let me make it clear so we can perhaps save some time. I am looking to build the finest golf course in the world if given the chance to do it."

Mr Tyldesley said: "I don't doubt that it's an aspiration but can I put it to you that it is only a recent aspiration in order to justify the use of a Site of Special Scientific Interest." Mr Trump retorted: "That is absolutely false – the moment I saw the site I thought it had the potential to be the greatest golf course in the world."

But Mr Trump was none too encouraging when asked whether families would still be able to visit the site after it had been turned into a golf course. "You don't want to be sitting with your family getting smashed by a golf ball," he said. And he added: "In the US we have the expression 'half-assed'. Let's do it properly."

The proposed £1bn development was turned down by the council in Aberdeenshire, on the casting vote of a Liberal Democrat councillor, but it has the backing of Scotland's First Minister, Alex Salmond, who says it will bring jobs to the area.

Mr Trump is well known to American audiences as the progenitor of the NBC reality show The Apprentice, the US forerunner of its British counterpart. He is proposing to construct two golf courses, 900 timeshare apartments, a 450-bed hotel and 500 luxury homes. One of the courses would be on the Foveran Links, a stretch of sand dunes which is home to a variety of wildlife including skylarks, kittiwakes, badgers and otters.

Many local business and tourist agencies are in favour of the development, and Mr Trump has warned that rejecting it would be a "very bad signal" to anyone thinking of investing in Scotland. But environmentalists have objected. Michael Forbes, a local fisherman, turned down the Trump Organisation's offer of £350,000 to sell his family's run-down farm in the centre of the estate.

The inquiry is expected to last between three and four weeks.