NatureScot has been accused of deliberately exaggerating the amount of protected land that would be affected by a planned golf course at Coul Links.
The agency objected to the proposal, saying it could have “significant adverse effects” on habitats on part of the Loch Fleet Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).
Its stance was welcomed by a coalition of conservation bodies which said it dealt a huge blow to the project.
But Communities for Coul (C4C), the group behind the multi-million pound plan, says the objection is “unfair, unjustified and inaccurate”.
How much SSSI land is affected?
In its submission to Highland Council, NatureScot said 5.58 hectares (13.7 acres) of the SSSI would be affected.
That is 300% more than the 1.5ha (3.7 acres) calculated by C4C’s scientific advisers.
C4C claims the agency calculated the loss by “rounding up” information based on a desk top assessment of project maps.
A spokesperson for the group said: “This method of rounding up is entirely subjective and is not based on any written guidance or policy.
“Neither C4C’s scientific experts nor their planning consultant have ever seen it in use before.
“It is hard to escape the conclusion that NatureScot have deliberately overstated this figure to create a reason for turning down Coul Links golf course.
“We are shocked and disappointed by the agency’s unfair, unjustified, and inaccurate objection to this planning application.
“Ideally, we would like to work with NatureScot to ensure the restoration and preservation of Coul Links.”
A NatureScot spokeswoman said in assessing the impact of the proposed golf course, it considered the area of direct habitat lost. It said it also considered the location and distribution of any impacts throughout the dune system.
“Change from dune heath to fairways and paths interrupts the ecology of the dune heath habitat.
“For example, impacts from the loss of one hectare of habitat are more significant if those losses are spread throughout a sand dune system, as opposed to being in one area alone.
“We understand the desire to have a golf course in this beautiful, natural area, but NatureScot has always been clear that locating a golf course within Coul Links would be very challenging.”
Previous course plan turned down
C4C revived the project in 2021 after a bid by a previous group was rejected by Scottish Ministers in 2020 following a public inquiry.
The group says the development would bring in over £50 million of private investment and create up to 400 jobs.
It says the revived plan differs from the previous unsuccessful bid in many ways, including a 90% reduction in the area of the SSSI that would be developed.
The controversial application attracted nearly twice as many objections as messages of support.
However, C4C says there is more support from people living in the area.
In its submission, NatureScot said it believes a golf course could be built in the area by using a more of the adjacent agricultural land.
But C4C director Gordon Sutherland said: “To make the economics work, this needs to be one of the world’s ‘Top 50’ courses.
“It is this which will create an unmissable destination in East Sutherland for serious golf tourists.”
He said the chances of achieving the ranking are improved by the involvement of renowned designer Bill Coore and course developer Mike Keiser.
“But the absolute fundamental ingredient is the site and its natural attributes.”
He said the natural landscape is full of lumps, bumps and natural hazards.
“By contrast, Coul farmland is flat, featureless and, critically, a long way from the sea. The views are poor.
“There is zero chance anybody would build a course there because it would cost far more than it could ever return. It could not become a top-rated course.”