A public inquiry into the controversial Coul Links golf development in East Sutherland gets underway today.
The coalition of environmental conservation organisations fighting the proposals welcomed the start of the inquiry.
Plans were first launched in 2015 for an 18-hole championship course spanning 805 acres, by US businessman Todd Warnock and developer Mike Keiser.
Nature witnesses will give evidence on behalf of the Conservation Coalition, a group of seven environmental organisations who have come together in a bid to halt progress on the links. They regard the site of significant importance to wildlife.
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The developers say that 250 indirect jobs, plus a £60million boost to the East Sutherland economy, would be delivered in the courses first 10 years.
The inquiry in Clashmore near Dornoch, which is due to last at least four weeks, will hear evidence from a number of experts who will argue that the internationally important wildlife site is unsuitable for a golf course.
The fate of the site will then lie with Scottish Ministers.
Campaigners have argued proposals would completely destroy more than 34 acres of internationally important, irreplaceable dune habitat and disrupt the natural dune processes and ecosystems.
Witnesses giving evidence on behalf of the conservation coalition are Craig Macadam, Buglife Scotland’s conservation director, Jonny Hughes, chief executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust and a global councillor for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Dr Lucy Wright, a principal scientist at the RSPB Centre for Conservation Science, and Butterfly Conservation’s Dr Mark Young, an emeritus senior lecturer at Aberdeen University.
The inquiry was triggered by the Scottish Minister’s decision to call in the proposals due to “issues of national importance in relation to natural heritage issues.”
The plans were passed by Highland councillors despite more than 1,800 objections being lodged and the council planning officers recommending refusal.
A Save Coul Links campaign last year prompted almost 13,000 people to contact MSPs and Scottish Ministers about the proposals.
Coul Links is protected as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, Special Protection Area and Ramsar Site.
Aedan Smith, head of planning and development at RSPB Scotland said: “We welcome the inquiry and the opportunity to submit expert evidence to set out exactly why Coul Links is the wrong place for these damaging proposals.
“Given the wildlife importance of the site these plans should never have been allowed to progress this far; we urge Scottish Ministers to ensure that this internationally important place for nature is saved from this inappropriate development and remains a special place for wildlife.
Alistair Whyte, head of Plantlife Scotland added: “To build a golf course on such an important protected site would damage Scotland’s reputation the world over.
“Following the inquiry, all eyes will be on the Scottish Government as we wait for them to do the right thing.”