Coul Links

Tagged with: Casework status: Open Casework type: Construction Site designations: Ramsar site Site designations: SPA Site designations: SSSI
Oystercatcher flock in flight over water.


Update 21st February. Scottish Ministers have turned down the development plans for a luxury golf course on this highly protected area. See our response here. The decision by Scottish Ministers can be read here.

This landmark decision was very welcome not only for Coul Links but in the context of the nature and climate emergency, and the commitment shown by the Scottish Government to protected areas.

This success has been a huge collection effort not only by our Conservation Coalition partners but also many members of the public, including those in the local community, who supported the campaign. Although this may not be the end of the road for the protection of this site, we hope that this decision marks a watershed moment for planning decisions truly considering environmental needs and protection as part of our efforts to meet the nature and climate emergency.

Thank you so much for your support with the Coul Links campaign.

Coul Links is a beautiful, natural coastal dune system, home to many species of wildlife. It is located to the immediate south of Loch Fleet in East Sutherland, Scotland. Coul Links is one of the last areas of undeveloped species-rich dune habitat in Scotland. Together with Loch Fleet itself, Coul Links is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and an international Special Protection Area (SPA) and Ramsar site.

The proposed golf course would have destroyed this unique collection of dune habitats and would have resulted in harmful disturbance to both wintering and breeding waders, waterfowl and other species, many of which are rare and/or declining in number.

Last year 13,000 people campaigned for the Scottish Government to 'call-in' the planning decision because of the harm it will cause to nature. The Scottish Government scrutinised the planning application through a Public Inquiry and have now announced their decision to refuse the proposals.



Why is it worth fighting for?

Loch Fleet National Nature Reserve is a large tidal basin surrounded by dunes, dune slacks, saltmarsh and pine woods.  The mudflats which are exposed at low tide provide a rich food source for thousands of birds.

Coul Links on the south side of the loch is one of the last areas of undisturbed species-rich duneland in Scotland. It is a mosaic of different dune habitats, each individually important and all increasing rare. It is particularly special as a complete dune system with dynamic, shifting dunes, static older dunes, seasonally flooded dune slacks, and ancient sand dunes covered by heath. 

The dune complex at Coul Links is home to many different birds, especially waders and waterfowl such as curlews, oystercatchers, dunlins, bar-tailed godwits, ringed plovers and terns. Large flocks of eider overwinter just offshore. Breeding birds which also stand to lose their homes include skylarks, whinchats and cuckoos which are all in decline across the UK. Many of the species are of Conservation Concern being either Red or Amber Listed. During the breeding season the links are alive with birdsong. 

Mammals recorded on the site include voles, pine martens, badgers, stoats, weasels and bats. The dunes also provide home to a colourful and rich variety of flowering plants (including sea centuary, purple milk-vetch, moonwort and frog orchid) and insects including some rare specialist species.

Many of the animals, birds and insects present depend upon free movement between the different dune habitats (at different stages of their life cycle, for example).

The huge importance for wildlife of Loch Fleet and Coul Links is reflected by the fact that the area is protected nationally as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and internationally as a Special Protection Area (SPA) and Ramsar site.

The mosaic of dune habitats is currently intact and human visitors mainly stick to the few footpaths that pass through the site. Wildlife can therefore use and move freely within and between habitats. The construction of a network of tees, fairways, manicured greens and footpaths weaving through the SSSI and SPA would destroy the habitat mosaic. Wildlife would no longer be able to freely move between the remaining fragmented pockets of dune habitats. Many of the birds and other animals that currently use the site would be scared off by increased and regular human presence and be unlikely to return.

Curlew Numenius arquata, bathing in shallow pool, Geltsdale RSPB reserve, Cumbria, England

How you can help

Please do like, share, retweet and engage with our campaign #SaveCoulLinks.

Our position

We are extremely concerned about the proposals and do not believe that a golf course can be accommodated on the site without unacceptable impacts to many rare and valuable species and habitats. 

We have formed a partnership with Buglife Scotland, Butterfly Conservation Scotland, Plantlife Scotland, the Marine Conservation Society, the National Trust for Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust to campaign against the proposals. As a group, we wrote to the developers at an early stage to express our deep concerns about the proposals and their failure to fully engage with the conservation organisations and urging them to think again. We also lodged a strong objection to the planning application. Supported by our conservation partners, we set up an e-action asking Scottish Ministers to step in and require further examination of the plans. The Scottish Government ‘called in’ the proposals and they have now been through a detailed Public Inquiry. We will continue to work with our conservation partners to help save Coul Links.

 Dunlin with summer plumage in grass


  • 21 February 2020
    Scottish Ministers have turned down the development plans for a luxury golf course on this highly protected area. See our response here. The decision by Scottish Ministers can be read here.

  • 27 November 2019
    Reporters pass their Inquiry Report to Scottish Ministers.

  • 8 April 2019
    The Conservation Coalition lodged our Closing Submissions summarising our case.

  • 22 March 2019
    End of the inquiry.

  • 26 February 2019
    Public inquiry to start at 10:00a.m. in the Carnegie Hall, Clashmore, Dornoch, IV25 3RG.

  • 31 October 2018
    Pre-examination meeting to be held at 10:00am at the Carnegie Hall, Clashmore, Dornoch, IV25 3RG.

  • 24 August 2018
    Scottish Ministers ‘call in’ the planning application requiring further scrutiny of the proposals.

  • 20 June 2018
    Planning application approved by the Highland Council North Planning Applications Committee.

  • 5 June 2018
    Highland Council’s North Planning Applications Committee decided to defer a decision on whether or not to grant permission.

  • March 2018
    Further information is submitted by the developer, mainly outstanding documents and information in relation to hydrology and the proposed recreational access management plan.

  • February 2018
    Additional information is submitted by the developer, mainly in relation to hydrology and the proposed recreational access management plan.

  • December 2017
    Closing date for planning submissions - 22nd December. 

  • October 2017
    Planning application published on Highland Council website: opportunity for general public to submit comments on the application to Highland Council. 

  • August 2017
    Several press articles suggest that a planning application is expected in September 2017.

  • May 2017
    The partnership hosts a local event celebrating the special wildlife of Coul Links.

  • March 2017
    Butterfly Conservation Scotland joins the partnership of conservation organisations speaking out against the proposals.

  • September 2016
    Marine Conservation Society joins the partnership of conservation organisations speaking out against the proposals.
  • August 2016
    RSPB Scotland forms partnership with Scottish Wildlife Trust, Buglife and Plantlife Scotland to campaign against the proposals. The partnership writes to the developers expressing its concern regarding the proposals and lack of meaningful engagement, and urging the developers to think again.
  • August 2016
    Second public consultation event held by developers.

  • August 2016
    Highland Council issues a revised scoping opinion following consultation with Scottish Natural Heritage.

  • July 2016
    Developers hold a local public consultation event on their emerging proposals. RSPB Scotland registers concern about the impacts of the proposals on the SSSI and SPA and the site’s importance for wildlife more generally.

  • July 2016
    Highland Council issues a scoping opinion, setting out matters that the environmental impact assessment will be required to cover.

  • May 2016
    RSPB Scotland writes to developers’ EIA consultant offering to discuss the project. Consultant declines the offer.

  • January 2016
    Highland Council confirms that the proposals would require an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA).

  • December 2015
    Developer requests opinion from Highland Council on whether the proposal will require an environmental impact assessment (EIA) and if so, what matters the EIA should cover.