IT has remained unchanged for centuries, an unspoilt wilderness sheltering a delicate mosaic of plants, insects and animals within its green embrace.

To walk on Coul Links in east Sutherland is to see Scotland as it was before it felt the hand of man and nature run rampant without interference, say its defenders.

Yet, this month, a public inquiry will begin to decide if an 18-hole golf course can be carved out of its landscape of sand dunes and grasses, after a planning proposal passed by Highland Council was called in by the Scottish Government.

Coul Links Limited, the US-led company behind the scheme, insist it will protect the delicate environmental balance and bring jobs and prosperity.

But a coalition of conservationist charities have banded together to oppose the plan, saying a vital and unique ecosystem is in danger of being lost forever.

Spanning about two-and-a-half miles near the village of Embo, Coul Links is said to be one of the last untouched dune systems in Scotland and has been designated a Site Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and an international Special Protection Area (SPA).

The dunes system where the course would be built is a carpet of wildflowers and marram grass that supports a hugely diverse range of wildlife from rare plants and herbs to wintering waterfowl.

But it is the ecosystem as a whole that

environmentalists say must be protected. The land is dynamic, mixing shifting sand dunes with static hummocks, with flooded hollows alongside the ancient dunes allowing species to move from habitat

to habitat as they will.

Each year, eider ducks winter offshore, while the area shelters wigeon and teal ducks. Curlews, oystercatchers and other waders also make the dunes their home, while skylarks, whinchats and cuckoos – all in decline across the UK, according to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) – are among the other species that can be found.

Aedán Smith, head of planning and development at RSPB Scotland, said: “Coul Links is a vital home for many types of wildlife. It is an internationally important and protected site for a number of bird species, including some amazing waterbirds such as widgeon and teal.

“However, perhaps what makes Coul Links so unique is the complex system of different types of habitats and species.

“The sheer breadth of nature interest is reflected by the number of environmental organisations that have expressed horror that a golf course could even be considered for such a fantastic wildlife site.”

He added: “Just over 10 years after Donald Trump’s infamous environment wrecking Aberdeenshire golf course was approved, The world is be watching Scotland to see if we now take our international environmental responsibilities seriously.”

Because of the natural beauty found in this slice of Dornoch, some have dubbed it a “thin place” – a concept derived from a Gaelic saying that means the boundary between heaven and earth is fragile.

Not Coul, the local campaign that has sprung up to defend the dunes, speak of a natural paradise that thrives with burgeoning life. Among the grasses can be found rare herbs such as moonwort and purple milk-vetch, an endangered plant in Britain. Delicate grass of parnassus blooms dot the landscape, visited by fluttering portland moths while Small Blue butterflies – the smallest species in the UK – live their whole lives feeding solely on the resident kidney vetch flowers.

At the smallest level Coul harbours uniqueness. Fonseca seed flies living on the dunes can be found nowhere else, and are listed in the same conservation category as the Asian elephant, tigers and the blue whale.

Even the lichens are famed for their biodiversity, with 101 separate species having been found, including some which appear on the international red list of species needing urgent conservation, and on Scotland’s own list of top conservation priorities.

Alistair Whyte, head of Plantlife Scotland, said: “It’s a stunning, wild landscape. That’s the sense you get when you are there. It’s a place where nature is in charge.“You get a sense of what Scotland was like before people came along and developed it all. It’s a place of big skies and big sea that’s totally unspoiled.”He added: “It’s one of the only places in Scotland where you can see the landscape transition from the sea to the beach then on to the dunes and into the land. It’s a truly unique environment.”

However, Coul Links is not completely untouched day by day. Not Coul have written on the site’s iconic Big Dune near Embo, said to be shaped by generations of children playing at the nearby Cluin Burn.

And pathways criss-cross the area, used by walkers and birdwatchers and those searching for a quiet place to unwind.

Helen Todd, Ramblers Scotland’s campaigns and policy manager, said: “Coul Links is hugely valued for informal recreation, as a place for people to enjoy solitude amongst its wild, scenic dunes.

“An 18-hole golf course would transform that experience. Indeed, the course is designed so that seven holes run across an important core path which is part of the John o’ Groats Trail, a new long-distance route that can boost the region’s tourism, health and economy.”

Yet while environmentalists warn all this will be lost, the developers have a different story. And Todd Warnock, the American millionaire behind the plan, is no golf magnate in the mould of Donald Trump.

Having previously led efforts to preserve local heritage by restoring the old Dornoch Courthouse, he maintains strong ties to the area and calls it his home.

Back in the US, Mr Warnock is known for leading a £14 million fundraising drive to conserve wetlands known as the the Saugatuck Harbour nature area in his native Michigan, and has publicly disavowed his President as someone he has never supported or agreed with.

While no-one from Coul Links Ltd would comment ahead of the inquiry, Mr Warnock previously said: “The intention is not to

build just a golf course, but to create an extraordinary course that will complement the links already here, particularly the famous Royal Dornoch. And to strengthen community by bringing jobs and visitors to an area that is much depressed.

“So, too, it is to protect and preserve an extraordinary environment habitat suffering decline at the hands of austerity.”

The public inquiry will be held in the

Carnegie Hall in Clashmore, Dornoch

It starts on 26 February 26 and will run for

four weeks.