IT is one of Scotland’s most unique landscapes, a protected coastal habitat of windswept dunes which offers shelter to a raft of rare insects, birds and plants.  

The sand dunes of Coul Links, in Sutherland, are recognised as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), and regarded by environmentalists as important to not just Scotland but the international community as a whole.  

However, conservationists say the fragile balance of the coastal expanse under threat from plans to build a luxury 18-hole golf course incorporating at least part of the dunes. 

The scheme has been strongly objected to by the seven members of the ‘Conservation Coalition’ – Buglife, Butterfly Conservation, Marine Conservation Society, National Trust for Scotland, Plantlife, RSPB Scotland, and Scottish Wildlife Trust. 

It is the second time developers have sought to build a golf course at the site, which the group says was previously under threat from a very similar application in 2017.  

READ MORE: In the shadow of Trump. Coul Links golf course controversy

That proposal was ultimately turned down by Scottish Ministers in 2020 as it was deemed too damaging to nature to proceed. 

However, the plans have been resurrected, and developers say they have taken steps to alleviate the Scottish Government’s concerns.  

The conservation group say this fresh proposal is also doomed to fail, after Government Agency NatureScot ruled it was contrary to National Planning Framework rules, and declined to offer its support. 


The planned 18-hole course, near Embo in Sutherland, would be designed by golf architect Bill Coore and developed by Mike Kaiser, and developers Communities for Coul Ltd (C4C) say it has the potential to bring significant socio economic benefits to the area. 

In their planning document, they say the revised proposal “recognises the importance attributed to the natural environment” and seeks to “minimise impact” through careful planning, design and with reference to positive examples of other links courses within SSSI’s.  

The developers insist the new design has "embraced ” opportunities to reverse the biodiversity loss occurring as a result of the encroachment of invasive species and will “conserve, restore and enhance” biodiversity. 

In its planning application, the developer states: “The ‘do nothing’ approach does not protect the special environmental designations nor represent a sustainable option.  

“It is the balance now achieved between a sensitive, considered and well executed development proposal that has at its heart the protection of the environment and its continued function supporting species and habitats, that justifies delivery of the 44 development.  

“Without intervention, the SSSI will continue to degrade. This is an opportunity to secure biodiversity net gain, deliver meaningful socio economic benefits and meet the Scottish Governments National objective for Rural Revitalisation” 

However, it has been faced with more than 700 objections and now looks to face an uphill struggle after NatureScot weighed in with its views.  

After asking for an extension to the consultation phase, David Mackay, NatureScot’s Head of Operations for the North region, said the new plan still fell foul of rules regarding development on SSSIs. 


Among NatureScots objections were concerns the proposal will cause the direct loss of significantly more protected dune habitat within the Site of Special Scientific Interest than outlined by the current plans. 

The government agency also feared there will be significant adverse effects on the many bird species which call the dunes their homes, including oystercatchers, bar-tailed godwits, curlews, dunlin, and redshank. 

In a letter to the Highland planning committee, he states: “We recognise the potentially large economic benefits that could arise from this proposal and their local and regional significance.  

“We also recognise and acknowledge the commitment by the applicant to develop measures to reduce the footprint of the course, as well as to mitigate and offset impacts on nationally important natural heritage interests.  

“However, the conclusion of our assessment is that this proposal is contrary to National Planning Framework 4 (NPF4) requirements not to compromise the objectives of SSSI designation and the overall integrity of Loch Fleet Site of Special Scientific Interest.” 

READ MORE: New golf course plans raise concerns

Aedán Smith, Head of Policy and Advocacy at RSPB Scotland said these objections “made it clear” the golf course should not go ahead 

He said: “Coul Links is so important for nature that it has multiple protection designations and is a completely inappropriate place for a luxury golf course.  

“The impacts of the golf course would be hugely damaging and fly in the face of attempts to tackle the nature and climate emergency. We call on Highland Council to refuse this application and save Coul Links from irreparable damage.” 


Ruchir Shah, Director of External Affairs at the Scottish Wildlife Trust added: “Given the application looks very similar to the previous application to develop the site it isn’t surprising that Nature Scot has once again objected to this proposal, it is welcomed though.  

“Highland Council should listen to this valued opinion and refuse this application.” 

Craig Macadam, Conservation Director at Buglife said: “NatureScot’s objection highlights the importance of Coul Links’ unique sand dune habitat and its value for breeding and wintering birds, endemic invertebrates, and rare lichens.  

“Highland Council must take decisive action and kick out these plans or risk losing Coul Links and its special wildlife forever.” 

The planning application is due to go before Highland council, with a decision expected by the end of June.