PLANS to build a luxury golf course on protected sand dunes in the Highlands have been criticised by Scotland’s nature agency.

NatureScot has objected to the “unacceptable” proposal from developer C4C (Communities for Coul) to turn the internationally protected Coul Links near Embo into a course.

Similar plans for the course were refused planning permissions by the Scottish Government three years ago despite being given the green light by Highland Council.

NatureScot has warned that the plans will have significant adverse effects on a sand dune habitat of national importance, adding that the environmental impact assessment underplays this concern.

It said the development would cause the direct loss of significantly more protected dune habitat within a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) than the four acres (1.5ha) stated by C4C.

READ MORE: Group behind Coul Links golf course proposal defend plans

However, the agency said it recognised the economic benefits to the local area a luxury golf course could bring, and said the project could potentially progress in the area if more farmland was used instead.

The dune habitat on the East Sutherland coast is one of the last of its kind in Scotland, according to NatureScot, and Scottish ministers previously felt plans for a course would be too damaging to nature.

Conservation Coalition, a seven-member group that includes charities Plantlife, RSPB Scotland, Scottish Wildlife Trust, and Ramblers Scotland, have already opposed the development.

Meanwhile, more than 700 objections have also been sent to Highland Council.

Ramblers Scotland has launched a petition calling for the plan to be rejected on grounds that it partially infringes on a SSSI, would damage the natural landscape, and impact access for walkers in the area. 

Aedán Smith, head of policy and advocacy at RSPB Scotland, said: “The objection from NatureScot – Scotland’s lead public body responsible for advising Scottish Ministers on nature matters – makes it clear that this development should not go ahead.

“Coul Links is so important for nature that it has multiple protection designations and is a completely inappropriate place for a luxury golf course.

“The impacts of the golf course would be hugely damaging and fly in the face of attempts to tackle the nature and climate emergency. We call on Highland Council to refuse this application and save Coul Links from irreparable damage.”

Ruchir Shah, director of external affairs at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, added: “Given the application looks very similar to the previous application to develop the site it isn’t surprising that NatureScot has once again objected to this proposal. It is welcomed though.

“Highland Council should listen to this valued opinion and refuse this application.”