QUESTIONS have been raised over controversial plans for a golf course on a protected Scottish beach after drone photographs showed a significant portion of the prospective site completely flooded.

The images shared with the Sunday National also raise questions about the impact coastal erosion would have on the planned 18-hole course, with metres of shoreline apparently being lost over just a few years.

The application to build a golf course at Coul Links, near Embo in Sutherland, is to be decided by Scottish Government ministers – who intervened after Highland councillors approved the plans despite concerns that it involved building on a triple-protected dune system.

The plans for a golf course on the dunes are backed by American billionaire Mike Keiser, who will step in to fund construction if the application submitted by Communities for Coul (C4C), is approved.

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Keiser had been behind a previous application to build at the site, which was also called in by Scottish Government ministers before ultimately being rejected in 2020.

The Coul Links site forms part of the Loch Fleet Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and the Dornoch Firth and Loch Fleet Special Protection Area (SPA). It is also protected as a “Ramsar site” under the international Convention on Wetlands, which was signed in 1971.

C4C has argued that building a golf course on a small portion of the SSSI will bring further investment and allow the rest of it to be protected.

However, drone shots shared with this paper taken on February 24 and March 3 show huge swathes of the prospective golf course flooded, raising questions about how the project could go ahead.

The National:

The National:

Dr Tom Dargie, an expert dune ecologist with the Not Coul campaign group, said: “The dunes flood every winter and they might be getting wetter too as a result of very recent increased winter rainfall. The golf proposal is quite badly affected by this.

“Basically, Coul Links is too wet for a golf course, that is why it is part of an international Ramsar wetland site hosting good numbers of teal and wigeon every winter.”

The “Conservation Coalition” - a group of charities opposing the plans to build at Coul Links which includes the National Trust for Scotland, RSPB Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust - said the flooding was part of what made the area “a unique and special place”.

A spokesperson for the coalition added: “The annual flooding of the dune slacks provides an important refuge for wintering birds … for which the site is protected.

READ MORE: More than 1000 objections to plan for golf course on Scottish nature reserve

“The flooded dune slacks also contribute to the unique habitats on site which support a rich diversity of plants.”

A spokesperson for developers C4C said they were “aware of flooding at the site over the last few months during which, with an unprecedented 10 named storms between September and January, we have seen an unusual amount of rainfall”.

They added: “However, the flooding of the dune slacks is normal and expected – and has been factored into the project, with the golf course closed during the winter months and only scheduled to be open from April.”

The Not Coul campaign group has also raised concerns about coastal erosion. Images shared with this paper (below) show the edge of the dunes on June 7, 2018 versus March 16, 2024.

The National:

Dargie said of the images: “We saw the start of very serious rapid coastal erosion in November 2023 and that continued with normal February to April high tides in 2024.

“Part of hole 17 and the back tee of hole 18 in the present proposal are now less than four metres from slipping down onto the beach.

“It is probably already unsafe to construct hole 17 and that tee. Chunks of the so-called construction corridor have already fallen down.”

Green MSP Ariane Burgess, who represents the Highlands and Islands, said Coul Links was “one of Scotland’s last undeveloped, species-rich dune habitats”.

She went on: “It should go without saying that this irreplaceable landscape shouldn’t have a golf course built on top of it. But Dr Dargie’s analysis makes clear just how unsuitable it is.

“We need to stop listening to self-interested billionaire developers with no ties to the community and begin listening to the experts who understand the imminent impacts of climate change and rising sea levels.

“There’s a reason local people, conservation groups and wildlife champions have spent years opposing this development. Putting a golf course in Coul is an act of environmental vandalism.”

C4C said it had no comment on claims of erosion.