It's like two British people going to America, buying a little corner of Yosemite National park and saying ‘we going to develop it and invite all our rich Scottish friends to play
Coul Links in the Scottish Highlands is a part of the Loch Fleet Site of Special Scientific Interest and boasts pristine sand dunes, is home to a variety of birds including Icelandic greylag geese, bar-tailed godwit and curlew, and plants such as variegated horsetail, purple milk-vetch, rue-leaved saxifrage, moonwort and frog orchid.
Protected as part of the Dornoch Firth and Loch Fleet Ramsar site, not only does the golf course threaten the SSSI area and its ecology, but those living in the town of Dornoch say the proposal is dividing the town and so far five environmental groups have voiced their opposition to the plans.
The developers, American golf course giant Mike Kaiser, and Todd Warnock, entrepreneur and owner of 5-star Links House at Royal Dornoch, have teamed up with Texas-based golf course architects CooreCrenshaw, and believe that the new course will attract 15,000 golf tourists to the Highland region of Sutherland in year one, and 20,000 by year 10.
Nearby the Royal Dornoch Golf Course, ranked fifth in the world by golfers, already attracts a huge number of golfing tourists to the area each year. And protesters argue that the 333-hectare Coul Links proposal would only create an extra 20 or so jobs to the Dornoch area and would devastate its environmental status.
Chris Surmonte moved to Dornoch in 1998, thanks to the draw of golfing tourism. He worked as a caddy at Royal Dornoch for two months, but he is against the proposals at Coul Links warning that developing this piece of land would be a disaster: "It's a case of economic benefit against ecological destruction. The town is a super-bucolic, remote countryside coastal wilderness. From that aspect I'm surprised the application has even got this far.
"There would be economic benefits but not in line with the way this town has grown organically from all these years and there is a really fine balance of tourism vs ecology. At the moment it's balanced really nicely, we get the tourism from Royal Dornoch Golf Club and also the people who go hill walking, go to Orkney, and stay in a charming town with no overt marketing.
"The kind of golf tourist coming to Coul Links would not be the same as those visiting Royal Dornoch. It would be far more mainstream, for super-rich people who are coming simply because it's a Mike Keiser project. I believe the balance of the town will be put out of kilter. It will turn into a golf theme park.
"The town is already full to the brim in summer and this is just a vanity project for two wealthy Americans. This is a local town and this is too much of a globalization of this tiny place. It's a total paradox of what these hyper-rich Americans love about Dornoch. It's like two British people going to America, buying a little corner of Yosemite National park and saying ‘we going to develop it and invite all our rich Scottish friends to play.'"
Hugh Fullerton-Smith, former director of the European Nature Trust and now Executive Director for Change for Climate Change, worries that something as important as SSSI status can be taken away. "It's really simple for me - Scotland has lost 99 per cent of its natural habitat thanks to our collective greed and climate change means we have lost a lot of areas of wilderness.
"It's a real natural jewel here and SSSI status takes a lot to get. We are not fighting the development, but we are fighting the issue. Todd Warnock has done a lot of good in the town, and Mike Keiser has said he won't go ahead if 40 per cent of the community is against it. Sadly, a lot of people don't really understand the impact of this development."
The Scottish Wildlife Trust used to manage the area under an agreement with the landowners Cambusmore Estates. The Trust is extremely concerned about the golf course plans, as are PlantLife Scotland, RSPB Scotland, Buglife, and most recently The Marine Conservation Society.
Calum Duncan, Head of Conservation Scotland for the Marine Conservation Society said: "Scotland is of European importance for sand dune systems and Coul Links is one of few in Scotland and across the UK that remains almost entirely undisturbed. We think they should stay that way as befitting a nationally and internationally important site, so that the local community, visitors and rare wildlife can share and enjoy them for generations to come."
The five protest groups say they have all written to the developers urging them to reconsider their plans however Todd Warnock claims no such letter has been received.
Bruce Wilson, Senior Policy Officer, Scottish Wildlife Trust said: "The recently published State of Nature Report gives a clear warning about the loss and fragmentation of coastal habitats, and demonstrates how unsustainable development is harming Scotland's wildlife and habitats.
"A very significant proportion of the undisturbed dune system at Coul Links will be irreversibly damaged if this proposal goes ahead. It is almost inconceivable that we are faced with the loss of such a precious place. Hopefully lessons have been learned from the Scottish Government's approval of Trump International Links in Aberdeenshire, which has been a disaster for another nationally important sand dune system."
On the contrary, Todd Warnock believes that the threat to wildlife and the ecology of the area can be safeguarded and says: "We are confident, working with all the statutory bodies and the local communities, that any threat to wildlife can be mitigated. That is precisely the reason for the environmental impact statement process via Highland Council. (The EIS ensure environmental management is considered as part of the approvals process for all development proposals). Plus the vast majority of residents support the project."
He added that ways of conserving the wildlife will be detailed in the Environment Impact Assessment, with specific efforts put in place to strengthen the ecosystem.
"Our objective is to enhance the wildlife and dunes. We have been very intentional with the design of the course to stay far away from the most sensitive areas. But the developer (Mike Keiser) and designer (CooreCrenshaw) are both world renowned for environmental sensitivity and spectacular golf courses that have, in Mr Keiser's, case have been uniformly praised for both environmental sensitivity and positive economic impact. All this was detailed preliminarily at the public consultation events.
"We are confident the golf course will serve as a positive economic catalyst to the entire East Sutherland region. Leaders of every golf course in the area (six in total), who were initially concerned, have now pledged their firm support. Over 80% of local Embo residents and 73% of all attendees who wrote responses after our public events were supportive.
"The Embo Community Trust, who members live adjacent to Coul Links, has been firmly supportive of our efforts. Finally, our economics consultant has provided detailed analysis on the economic impact which is materially positive."
You can follow this campaign at www.notcoul.com
See the new State of Nature report here State of Nature
Laura Briggs is the Ecologist's UK-based news reporter. Follow her here @WordsbyBriggs