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Fresh Coul Links plan promises to be ‘environmentally sensitive’ as major golf course project moves a step closer

Golf course designer Bill Coore with a group of visitors at the site of the proposed course.
Golf course designer Bill Coore with a group of visitors at the site of the proposed course.

Plans for a luxury golf course at an important nature site in Sutherland have moved a step closer after a community group submitted a scoping application to Highland Council.

Communities for Coul (C4C) are part of a campaign looking to build a “world class” – yet “environmentally sensitive” – golf course at Coul Links.

The project has proved controversial in the past, but a 2021 ballot showed it had the backing of 69% of locals.

The links caused a battle between the local community who largely wanted it and conservationists who opposed its creation.

C4C says a key aspect of its new proposal is a comprehensive plan to restore and protect the Coul Links Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

How will it address environmental concerns?

The group is raising money through donations to fund a new planning application this year.

A wide range of environmental studies will be completed first.

C4C’s Gordon Sutherland said the group has been studying courses built on SSSIs like Askernish, Machrihanish and Skibo.

It has also discussed the proposal with NatureScot.

He said: “Our aim remains to achieve planning permission for one of the world’s most environmentally sensitive golf courses.

Controversial plans for a ‘world class’ golf course at Coul Links in Sutherland could be back on.

“It will use the income it generates to remediate the Coul Links SSSI and then sustain it for future generations.”

Among the plans to address environmental concerns are:

  • Land used as tees, greens, fairways and walkways within the SSSI reduced by more than 40%
  • Path altered to avoid the most environmentally valuable areas
  • Fairways will be mown, instead of being stripped and replanted. This will preserve the native grasses and lichens
  • All fairways broken up into two or more pieces, preventing fragmentation of small colonies of flora and fauna

C4C has secured a commitment from internationally renowned course developer and environmentalist Mike Keiser to build the golf course.

Golf designers Coore & Crenshaw will also help.

But they will only come on board after planning permission is received.

Backers highlight major economic opportunity

Nearby Brora Golf Club and the Royal Dornoch Golf Club have both previously backed the plan.

C4C believes it will provide a major economic boost for the area.

Mr Sutherland added: “This incredibly important project will create many jobs, boost the economies of our local communities, encourage our young people to stay and new young families to make their home here, helping to reverse the ageing demographic of our area.

Councillor Jim McGillivray at Coul Links in 2020. Picture by Sandy McCook

“It will be good for employment, good for our economy and good for the environment.”

Long-serving Sutherland councillor Jim McGillivray has also given the group his support in the past.

He called a previous rejection of the plans in 2020 a “£10m lost opportunity”.

Why was it so controversial?

A bitter, three-year battle was seemingly resolved in February 2020 when the Scottish Government refused to back the creation of a luxury golf course development at Coul Links near Embo.

Highland Council had earlier approved it by 16 votes to one.

That prompted the creation of C4C, made up of people from the towns and villages around the Dornoch Firth coast.

There is a complex dune system on the site.

A four-week public inquiry in 2019 heard that the site of the proposed development had one of the most complex dune systems in Scotland.

There were relatively low levels of human impact and it was an important habitat for rare birds.

Highland Council had granted consent in 2018 against the advice of its own planning officers after developer Todd Warnock – backed by many locals – claimed it would provide a much-needed economic boost for the area.

However, after calling the issue in, the Scottish Government decided against the proposal in 2020.

Several nature groups opposed the plans.

Will the new proposal address those worries?

The planning application process will provide the answer in the coming months.

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