Ministers have been urged to step in as a row deepens over controversial plans to transform protected Highland dunes into a golf course.

The Highland Council on Wednesday (December 6) approved plans to develop land at Coul Links into an 18-hole golf course which environmental groups fear would see the "internationally important" landscape be "irreparably harmed". 

However, developer Communities for Coul (C4C) said the proposals would create "much-needed employment opportunities" in the local area and provide a "guaranteed future" for the wild coastal environment at Coul Links.

Councillors voted by eight in favour and six against to allow the plans near Embo in East Sutherland to go ahead, despite almost 750 objections from locals, NatureScot, and Scottish Government nature advisors. 

The plans will now be submitted for consideration by Scottish ministers. 

The Herald: Coul Links is a protected wildlife habitatCoul Links is a protected wildlife habitat (Image: Vince Lowe)

A coalition involving the RSPB Scotland, Scottish Wildlife Trust, Buglife and Plantlife Scotland has launched a petition calling for ministers to reject the plans to develop the land, which it considers "one of Scotland’s important and last remaining undeveloped dune systems". 

The organisations argue the golf course would have a "wide-ranging impact" on the protected sites and nature at Coul Links. 

Kenna Chisholm of RSPB Scotland, said: “We are once again asking Scottish Ministers to save Coul Links. It’s really regrettable the proposals are now at this stage given how clearly it’s been shown that Coul Links is not the place for this kind of development.

Read more: Golf course plans suffer NatureScot blow

“We’re urging ministers to call in the development to ensure that Coul Links is safeguarded for nature and people into the future rather than being irreparably harmed. Scottish Government has made impressive commitments to nature and the environment, and this is an opportunity for Ministers to show that there is substance and meaning to their positive words and targets."

Bruce Wilson of Scottish Wildlife Trust said: “Protected sites exist to not only help preserve extremely valuable places for nature and people but also to signpost very clearly where it is not appropriate to place developments.

"In a nature and climate emergency, which the Highland Council themselves have declared, this does not represent a sustainable decision, we are once again in the position of asking Scottish Ministers to call this in.”

The Herald: There are concerns the internationally recognised landscape at Coul Links will be harmedThere are concerns the internationally recognised landscape at Coul Links will be harmed (Image: Alison Searl / RSPB Scotland)

It is the second time in recent years Highland Council's planning committee has approved a golf course at Coul Links against officers’ advice and despite strong local opposition.

The last development was ultimately turned down by Scottish Ministers in 2020 due to the "detrimental impact" it would have had on nature.

C4C director Gordon Sutherland said: “We are absolutely delighted councillors have voted in favour of our application after careful consideration of all the information presented to them.
“Our plans, which have had the backing of local people from the outset, offer a genuine chance to create much-needed new employment opportunities in an area where the working age population is falling, threating the future viability of fragile communities.

Read more: In the shadow of Donald Trump: Coul Links golf course controversy

"They also provide a guaranteed future for the wonderful wild coastal environment of Coul Links, which is currently sadly neglected and at risk.
“Local democracy has been at the heart of today’s decision, and we trust that will continue to be the case when Scottish Ministers come to consider our application.”

It comes after C4C was criticised for posting a promotional video for the development with a voiceover by local actor and president of Golspie golf club Jimmy Yuill.

Ramblers Scotland claimed the video - which has since been removed - used stock footage to represent local people's support for the golf course.