Controversial Highland dunes golf course gets green light

Controversial plans to build a world-class golf course on rare sand dunes in Sutherland have been approved. Picture: Coul Project
Controversial plans to build a world-class golf course on rare sand dunes in Sutherland have been approved. Picture: Coul Project
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Plans to build a championship golf course on unique sand dunes on Scotland’s north-east coast are set to go ahead after planning permission was granted by Highland Council.

Environmentalists have criticised the decision, which they say could lead to the destruction of a globally important wildlife site.

They are now calling for Scottish ministers to step in and halt the development, which will affect a protected nature area at Coul Links, near Embo in Sutherland.

Wealthy American golf moguls Mike Keiser and Todd Warnock are behind the scheme, which includes an 18-hole course and clubhouse.

It’s estimated the new course will bring around 250 jobs to the area and generate £60 million for the local economy in its first decade.

But part of the part of the site is within the Loch Fleet Site of Special Scientific Interest and the Dornoch Firth and Loch Fleet Special Protection Area, which is home to threatened species including wading birds, orchids and the ultra-rare Fonseca’s seed fly.

Now the council’s planning committee has approved the application, going against the recommendation of their own officials and a statutory objection from national nature agency Scottish Natural Heritage.

Environmental groups campaigning to preserve the dunes, including the National Trust for Scotland, RSPB Scotland, Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) and Buglife, claim the decision undermines the credibility of the planning process and insist the Scottish Government should act urgently to safeguard the site.

“Scotland’s world-class wild landscapes and wildlife are at risk again from development,” said Stuart Brooks, head of natural heritage policy at the NTS.

“By approving this scheme in the face of public opposition and against the recommendation of the government’s natural heritage advisors the Scottish Government must now intervene to protect the site in the national interest.”

SWT chief executive Jonny Hughes urged ministers to “do the right thing and step in to avoid irreparable damage to Scotland’s reputation for environmental leadership internationally”.

Craig Macadam, conservation director of Buglife, said: “Today’s decision threatens the unique assemblage of plants and animals that call Coul Links home.

“Once these habitats and the species that live there are lost, there is no second chance.”

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Aedán Smith, head of planning and development at RSPB Scotland, added: “We urge Scottish ministers to call in the application, to ensure Coul Links is safeguarded for wildlife and people, both now and in the future.

“This is their opportunity to prove that there is substance and meaning to their assurances that Scotland will continue to uphold and enforce its international nature conservation obligations.”

Scottish Greens MSP for the Highlands & Islands John Finnie has echoed the calls, likening the proposals to the US president’s controversial golf resort at Menie estate in Aberdeenshire.

“This is a disappointing but unsurprising decision by councillors, who are too easily swayed by flimsy promises of jobs, regardless of the cost to an irreplaceable wild landscape and the nature and tourism that it supports,” he said.

“Coul Links is internationally important, and the proposal by American businessmen is reminiscent of the false promises from one Donald Trump in Aberdeenshire.”

Read more: Scottish Government holds secret talks over controversial golf course

Many local tourism businesses and golf clubs have expressed support for the plans.

Reacting to the council’s decision, developer Mr Warnock said the team is looking forward to bringing the economic benefits of such a prestigious golf course to Scotland.

He said: “This major investment in a relatively remote part of the country has the significant support of local people and we thank them again for their help and encouragement.

“I would also encourage opponents of the golf course to now work with us to make the project a huge success.

“The evidence is compelling that Coul Links will improve the site ecologically, particularly with regard to bird life, and we will continue to strive to ensure the development progresses with environmental integrity at its heart.”

He added: “It’s now time to build a golf course.”