IT was an area that suffered badly from the catastrophic 18th and 19th century clearances and now the local community has come together with an ambitious plan to reverse the modern exodus of young people.

The County of Sutherland is ­currently the least populous in the whole of Scotland, with the ­oldest population profile. If nothing is done, the population is forecast by ­Highland Council to decline by a ­further 19% in the next two decades.

At the same time, the area’s unique natural environment is under threat which is why people from Brora to Tain in East Sutherland have banded together to put forward an innovative proposal to create jobs and preserve the countryside, some of which is a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

Their plan is a luxury golf course to complement the famous Royal ­Dornoch, ranked as one of the top 10 in the world and a magnet for tourists. The ambition is to turn the area into a global golfing ­destination which would see a new 80 bed ­eco-hotel and significant upgrades to existing hotels.

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This would create between ­175-250 new jobs in the Dornoch Firth area, according to the non-profit ­Communities for Coul (C4C) which would part-own the new, ­environmentally sensitive golf course.

The snag is that the course would take in a small part of the important SSSI on Coul Links which is noted for its distinctive dune heath and rare flora and fauna, including the ­Fonseca Seed Fly, one of the few flies to be included on the red list of ­endangered animals. East Sutherland is the only place in the world where it has been found.

A previous application for a £10m golf course development at Coul Links near Embo, planned by ­American ­developer Todd Warnock, caused a battle between ­conservationists and local people who wanted it. It was overwhelmingly approved by ­Highland councillors but was called in by the Scottish Government. A four-week public inquiry in 2019 rejected the plan after hearing the site boasts one of Scotland’s most complex dune systems and is an important habitat for rare birds.

“Devastated” by the rejection, the local community banded together to draw up a revised application ­designed to build an ­“environmentally sensitive” course and protect the SSSI which is under threat from ­invasive species.

A community ballot held by C4C last June demonstrated a high level of local support for the plan, with a 44.4% turn-out and a 69.2% vote in favour. The revised design, drawn up after dialogue with NatureScot and Coul Links landowner Edward Abel Smith, means the amount of land to be used as tees, greens, fairways and walkways within the SSSI has been reduced by over 40% and now ­accounts for less than 1% of the Loch Fleet SSSI.

If planning permission is granted, internationally renowned golf course developer and environmentalist Mike Keiser has agreed to build the course, helped by course designers Coore & Crenshaw.

The community has also sought ­advice from environmentalists who say that unless investment is made to protect the SSSI, there will be ­nothing worth saving as it is gradually being destroyed by invasive species.

“The golf course would fund ­protection of the site, create an ­environmental management plan and generate money to make sure it is properly looked after,” said Gordon Sutherland of C4C.

The group has now submitted a scoping application to Highland Council and is raising money through donations to fund submission of a new planning application this year.

“When the first application was ­refused everybody felt let down,” said Sutherland. “The area is challenged for employment and the ­development would create much-needed jobs for local people and further enhance the reputation of the area as a world-class destination for golfers, as well as perpetually protecting the wonderful wild coastal environment.”

He said that although Dornoch ­already had a “wonderful golf course” and quite high employment rates as a result, the surrounding communities did not particularly benefit.

IF it gets the go ahead it is planned to use electric buses to bring in workers and players from the towns and villages near the course at Embo.

“As local people, we know how ­important the environment is but the carefully considered design and sensitive construction of the planned golf course means this is now an ­environmental project with a golf course at its heart,” said Sutherland.

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“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.”

Jake Chambers, from Golspie, is one of the many young people who support the project.

“As someone who was born here before moving to the central belt and then returning home, I’m well versed in the particular difficulties a young person faces in trying to cut out a life in our homeland,” he said.

“Coul Links will provide the ­crucial investment, jobs and housing we so desperately need and a world class golf course our area can be proud of. We must grab this opportunity with both hands.”