An alliance of conservation organisations has submitted a damning objection to proposals to build a golf course near Dornoch on one of the last undeveloped coastal dune-land habitats left in Scotland.
Protesters have said the 18-hole championship course would be on land they called "an irreplaceable piece of Scotland’s natural heritage".
American billionaire Mike Keiser and his partners, including fellow American Todd Warnock, want to build the course on an area known as Coul links in Sutherland.
They said protection of the area was a "top priority" in their plans.
The links lie north of Dornoch, between the popular holiday village of Embo and Loch Fleet, which is recognised for its internationally important salt marshes and dunes.
The plans, which were lodged with Highland Council on September 29, are seen as a possible boost to the economy by some.
But six conservation charities – The Scottish Wildlife Trust, RSPB Scotland, Buglife Scotland, Plantlife Scotland, Butterfly Conservation Scotland and the Marine Conservation Society – said the golf course would destroy one of Scotland’s last remaining coastal dune systems.
They have compared the struggle to the one surrounding Donald Trump’s development on the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire.
Coul Links is home to many species of wildlife, with migrant geese, waders and ducks currently arriving to use the seasonal winter lochs that begin to form at this time of year.
Plants found at Coul Links include coral root orchid, purple milk vetch and a rare colony of coastal juniper trees. It is also home to the Fonseca’s seed fly which is only found at a few sites in east Sutherland and nowhere else in the world. The area’s importance for nature is reflected by national and international protection designations, say campaigners.
In their submission to Highland Council the conservation organisations have also raised concerns about "serious flaws" in the environmental assessment commissioned by the developers. They say the predicted impact of the development detailed could have been seriously underestimated and, in practice, be even more devastating than proposals suggest.
Aedán Smith, head of planning and development at RSPB Scotland, said: "Almost a decade since Donald Trump’s controversial Aberdeenshire golf course was approved, destroying part of a nationally important wildlife site and severely denting Scotland’s environmental reputation, it’s incredible that an even more damaging proposal could come forward.
"There are international obligations to ensure the protection of Coul Links due to its global importance for wildlife. The eyes of the world will therefore once again be on Scotland, and on Highland Council when they make their planning decision, to see whether we now place more value on our special places."
Craig Macadam, director of Buglife Scotland, said: "The dune systems at Coul Links have developed over thousands of year in to an internationally important site for wildlife. As a nation we have a duty to protect these dunes for future generations in the local community, Scotland and further afield. Highland Council must do everything in their power to protect this important natural heritage asset from these damaging development plans."
MSP John Finnie has lodged a parliamentary motion opposing Coul Links, stating that the Scottish Government must make sure the special environmental designations on the land are protected.
A statement from the developers has said they had employed environmental experts to assist in the establishment of a golf course layout that would have minimal impact on existing species, habitats and landscape features.
It said: "We fully appreciate the special nature of the site and are confident that the proposals, and the Environmental Impact Assessment undertaken as a requirement of planning, demonstrate that the protection and enhancement of the area has remained a top priority throughout."
The statement said the Coul Links project could generate 250 new jobs and more than £60 million into the local economy in the first 10 years and urged people to read the documents supplied with its planning application.
Dornoch resident Gerry Bishop has protested to MSP John Finnie about his parliamentary motion.
Mr Bishop said: "It seems to me that there is a concerted and well-organised campaign to
oppose the proposed Coul development based on ignorance and false assumption
"Many objectors are keen to make overly simplistic comparisons with Coul and Menie, but it seems no one is willing to draw a comparison with the much nearer Castle Stuart development – built on part of an SSSI and generally accepted to be a success both economically and environmentally. If it can be done in Inverness why not in Embo?"
The planning consultation is due to end in a few weeks.