Controversial plans to build a world-class golf course on ecologically important sand dunes in the north of Scotland have taken a step forward after a key objection from the national environmental watchdog was resolved, according to developers.
American billionaire and golf mogul Mike Keiser, who already has a number of courses around the world, and business partner Todd Warnock aims to create a 22.7 hectares, 18-hole course at Coul Links, near the village of Embo in Sutherland.
Some locals have welcomed the proposal for its potential to generate tourism and job opportunities, but conservationists are worried it will destroy rare dune habitat and threaten endangered species.
Groups opposing the scheme include Scottish Wildlife Trust, RSPB Scotland, National Trust for Scotland and Buglife, who have raised concerns over its impact on the dune system and creatures such as the endemic Fonseca seed fly.
Fears were heightened after it was revealed that dunes at US president Donald Trump’s flagship golf resort at Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire could be stripped of protected status due to “damage and loss”.
The developers say the resolution comes a more detailed Recreation and Access Management Plan (Ramp) addressing potential disturbance to birds at Coul Links, which takes in a designated site of special scientific interest (SSSI), was submitted to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH).
They claim all outstanding ornithological objections raised by statutory bodies have now been successfully sorted out but discussions are continuing with SNH on dune habitats.
They are hoping to agree a solution to this “final outstanding issue” soon and push forward with the plans.
Mr Warnock says he is confident the remaining matters can be worked out.
“Our team has been working closely with SNH to resolve issues in the Ramp.
“SNH had stated in their response to the plans that they considered it likely these issues could be resolved, and we are pleased to have concluded this effort,” he said.
A spokesman for SNH denied an agreement had been reached but said it was hoped this would be imminent if progress is made on addressing potential damage to the dune system.
“Since providing our advice to the Highland Council late last year we have continued to work closely with the developer and their consultants to develop a Recreation and Access Management plan to protect wintering and breeding birds on and near the proposed golf course,” he said.
“We hope to soon agree this plan with the developer.
“Our primary objection – the impacts to SSSI sand dune habitats – remains unresolved.”
Kate Bellew, senior conservation planner at RSPB Scotland, said the charity would be keen to review any revised proposals and provide feedback, but until then would remain “incredibly concerned” about the impacts of the development.
She added: “We would be surprised if the nature conservation agency SNH has dropped their objection to a development which threatens an internationally important wildlife site.
“The plans submitted to Highland Council triggered widespread concern, not just from the statutory agencies – over 1,000 objections were received from concerned individuals and environmental organisations.
“The development could have far-reaching implications for all of the wildlife and the rare dune habitats found on this site.”
The developers claim the golf course will provide “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for the area, creating an estimated 250 new jobs and generating more than £60 million for the local economy during its first decade of operation.
Mr Warnock added: “This is a major project that will positively impact east Sutherland, the Highlands and Scotland for generations.
“Based on our confidence in the project to provide meaningful economic benefit to East Sutherland and our genuine dedication to environmental integrity, we are committed to working with the statutory bodies and others to ensure its success.”