PLANS for a world-class golf course in East Sutherland face being bunkered by double trouble – the threat to wildlife and angry locals.
US golf entrepreneurs Mike Keiser and Todd Warnock hope to transform land at Coul near Embo into an 805-acre, 18-hole complex.
But conservationists have called for surveys for the rare Fonseca’s seed fly, which they say is only found in the dune system on this particular stretch of coastline.
Scottish Natural Heritage has already advised Highland Council that there are likely to be "significant effects on the environment" caused by the championship course while a petition against the project attracted nearly 200 signatures within a few days of it being launched.
The site, which borders the North Sea and Loch Fleet, is in a special protected area and has designated sites of special scientific interest.
The area’s business leaders have embraced the prospect of new jobs and an influx of tourists – and other golf courses in the region have also welcomed the scheme.
But in response to an environmental screening report of the development, SNH admitted it had concerns.
David Patterson, SNH’s operations officer for Sutherland, Northern Isles and North Highland Area said the proposal is likely to have "a significant effect" on the Dornoch Firth and Loch Fleet Special Protected Area, known for its waterfowl and osprey.
He stated: "It has the potential to result in wetland habitat loss (i.e. flooded dune slacks) which may be used by SPA waterfowl, and could result in significant disturbance to SPA birds,"
The Loch Fleet Special Site of Scientific Interest could also be at risk.
Mr Paterson added: "The environmental impacts on this protected area are likely to be significant. Further assessment will be required on the level of impact to sand dune habitats. A more detailed golf course layout will help to inform this,"
Craig Macadam, conservation director at Buglife, also said the rare fly is restricted – globally – to a stretch of Sutherland coastline encompassing about the size of 100 football pitches.
"It’s an endemic species, extremely vulnerable to extinction," he said.
"Recent survey work by SNH found that populations had dropped significantly since the 1970s.
"Its habitat should not be put under threat from yet another golf development."
There was support for the project at two recent public consultations, with exhibitions of the proposals showcased in both Embo and Dornoch.
But one Embo resident, Gillian Emerick, has started a petition against the golf course at http://www.care2.com/go/z/e/AVf.X/zoyY/CFTXu
She said: "Loch Fleet is a protected area for its internationally important salt marshes and sand dune habitats. These soft habitats are very susceptible to surface erosion.
"Any motor vehicles, such as quad bikes, quickly cause damage which can take many years to recover. Imagine the damage that would be done by the construction vehicles needed to rip up the area to build a golf course,
"To destroy an area that is a special place supporting a diverse range of birds, plants and wildlife is sheer vandalism. Triple SI sites are supposed to be protected by law but it seems that if a rich American comes along and wants to build a golf course the law can be changed – Donald Trump did the same in Aberdeenshire. Please help me stop this happening here."
And already many other people are voicing their concern.
Comments from among those signing the petition, included: "Another golf course is not needed. This is greed and will destroy the landscape, the community of Embo, the natural habitat of wildlife and the eco system."
A spokesman for the developers’ agents Jones Lang Lasalle said: "The applicant is undertaking an environmental assessment of the site and its surroundings with the objective of achieving a development proposal that responds appropriately to the environment."
The course proposal is being co-led by developer Mr Keiser for Bandon Dunes Golf Resort, a golf venue in Oregon, USA.
Chicago-based Mr Warnock and his wife Liz have already invested hundreds of thousands in Dornoch in the Links House boutique hotel and the Carnegie Courthouse.
Sutherland councillor Graham Phillips has said that the scheme would offer significant financial benefits to the area, "especially if taken in conjunction with proposals to develop the Dornoch airstrip into a more viable operation".
At a recent Highland Council budget meeting, Mr Phillips successfully moved to retain the airstrip, believing it to have major potential.