A public inquiry into proposals to build an 18-hole championship golf course on a protected wildlife site in the Highlands is set to get under way today.
Plans for the development, which has been priced in excess of £6 million, were passed by Highlands councillors despite more than 1,800 objections and a recommendation for rejection from the authority’s own planners.
The inquiry was triggered after Scottish ministers decided to call in the proposals due to “issues of national importance in relation to natural heritage issues”.
The planned course will cover 22.7 hectares in total, with 14 hectares on sensitive coastal dune habitat at Coul Links, near Dornoch in Sutherland.
The area is one of the most protected nature sites in Scotland and one of the last undisturbed dune systems of its kind in the country.
It is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Special Protection Area (SPA) and Ramsar wetland site of international importance.
American developers Todd Warnock and golf course mogul Mike Keiser have said the golf course should generate 250 jobs and bring in £60 million for the local economy in its first ten years of operation.
But conservationists say the protected site is “irreplaceable” and should not be built on due to the potential destruction of internationally important wildlife and habitats.
The area is rich in biodiversity, home to otters, wading birds, threatened plants and rare insects – including the Fonseca’s seed fly, which is only found on a short stretch of coast in the region.
“Scotland is blessed with some of the world’s most outstanding landscapes and wild places,” said Stuart Brooks, head of conservation and policy at the National Trust for Scotland. “We hope that evidence at the inquiry will convince ministers that these are irreplaceable and worth far more to the nation as a whole than converting them to a golf course.”
Jonny Hughes, chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, said: “It’s a place that has both outstanding ecological value and a special wildness. It would be a national tragedy if it is lost to development.
“Ultimately the power to save Coul Links lies with Scottish ministers.
“The international significance of the area makes this a critical test of this government’s resolve to stand by its commitments to protect the natural environment.”