Save Coul Links – Here’s why we will be objecting (again) and what you can do to help

Friday 31st March 2023

A guest blog by RSPB Scotland and was originally written for Scottish Nature Notes

Here we go again!

A developer is once more looking to build an 18-hole golf course on a protected nature site – Coul Links, in the north of Scotland.

The previous proposal was refused by Scottish Ministers in 2020 who concluded that the proposed golf course was likely to have significant adverse impacts on the important natural heritage of the area. Over 13,000 people supported our campaign to save Coul Links, launched by a coalition of conservation bodies including RSPB Scotland.

Sadly, a very similar proposal is now with Highland Council for consideration. It won’t surprise you to learn that we will be objecting, but we have taken our time to carefully scrutinise the proposal. In our view, the new proposal would damage a precious wildlife habitat and disturb important species. We would encourage you to read our reasoning below and submit your own objection to Highland Council ([email protected]) as soon as you can.


Here’s why we will be objecting…

  1. It’s a sensitive wildlife habitat

The site of the proposed development, just north of Dornoch, is partly within the Dornoch Firth and Loch Fleet Special Protection Area (SPA), the Dornoch Firth and Loch Fleet Ramsar site (Ramsar sites are internationally important wetlands), and the Loch Fleet Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It is also next to the Moray Firth SPA.

The sand dune slacks at Coul Links are home to several different bird species, including wigeon and teal, which use the area as a haven during bad weather in the winter months. The shore next to Coul Links provides roosting and feeding habitat for wintering waders such as dunlin and oystercatcher. In addition, breeding birds are one of the reasons why the site is nationally protected. Many of the species are of Conservation Concern, being either Red or Amber Listed.

And let’s not forget what happened after Donald Trump was allowed to build a golf course on an SSSI site in Aberdeenshire. Just a few years after it opened, NatureScot had to strip part of the site of that status as it had lost what made it special.

  1. It’s a very similar application

The application is not sufficiently different from the 2017 application that was refused by Scottish Ministers in 2020; and not all the factors that led to that refusal have been addressed.

The developer has not learned from the public inquiry that this is an inappropriate place to develop a golf course.

  1. We’re in a climate and nature emergency

The need to reverse the rapid decline of biodiversity has been widely acknowledged at UK, Scottish and local government levels. Building a golf course on a protected wildlife habitat would run counter to the global “30×30” agreement to protect 30% of land by 2030. Scotland has already committed to meeting or exceeding this target. Scotland is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world, so any development should enhance nature, not literally mow down protected habitats.

  1. The developer has failed to properly assess the impact

Looking at the application, there is a lack of adequate assessment of the significant environmental impacts of the proposed development. It is not possible to establish beyond reasonable scientific doubt that there would not be an adverse effect on the integrity of the overlapping designated sites.

The developer says there would only be 1.5 hectares of direct habitat loss within the designated sites. However, this only refers to the tees and greens, which will be stripped of the natural vegetation, reprofiled and re-seeded with grass. The impacts of mowing the existing vegetation to short heights across the rest of the site footprint has not been considered as loss. Impacts are likely to extend beyond the footprint of the golf course infrastructure, for example, by causing disturbance to wintering and breeding birds.

The developer’s proposals for minimising the impact on birds are not sufficient.

In addition, they have not provided a cumulative impact assessment to consider the effect not just of the golf course and all its associated development but also other developments such as the holiday lodges and reservoir, which are both within the development site.

We don’t think the proposed development would comply with policies covering the Natural, Built and Cultural Heritage, Protected Species and Other Species in the Highland Wide Local Development Plan, and certain policies within the National Planning Framework.

What happens next…

RSPB Scotland has engaged with the developer at as early a stage as possible, attending the public consultation events, and meeting the developer at the Coul Links site to hear from them about their proposals and raise concerns.

While some habitat management on the site is required, the developer has exaggerated issues related to what they describe as ‘invasive’ species, many of which are naturally found in dune systems.

They have therefore attempted to present a golf course as a way of improving the habitat on site when of course it could be improved without one. There is an existing management agreement with NatureScot, and public funding pots available to the landowner.


We are asking Highland Council to refuse this application for all these reasons and more. All our Conservation Coalition partners are also objecting strongly.  Given how similar this application is to the one that was thrown out before, refusal would avoid another lengthy public inquiry.

The application (23/00580/FUL) can be viewed online here or in Highland Council’s offices. Comments can be submitted through the Highland Council website, by letter, or by email to [email protected] by Sunday 9 April.

With your help, we can once again save Coul Links.