THE public inquiry into a controversial bid to build a golf course in a Highland beauty spot could be launched in February, it has been claimed.

Councillors voted to approve US investors’ plans for an 18-hole championship course at dunes in Sutherland during the summer.

However, the application was called in by ministers amid fierce arguments about whether or not it should go ahead.

Critics of the Coul Links proposal have compared it to Donald Trump’s Aberdeenshire development, with charities citing serious fears about the impact on wildlife in an area that has been given special designations for its natural importance.

But backers, including many community voices, say Sutherland needs the jobs and investment, while the developers themselves have refuted concerns about environmental impact.

A summit will be held in Dornoch today as Holyrood officials continue the planning process.

The pre-examination meeting comes ahead of a public inquiry expected to begin early in 2019 and predicted to last for several weeks.

It is thought that the first session could be held in February.

Meanwhile, today’s meeting is expected to cover the processes that will lead to the eventual decision.

Ahead of the talks, a coalition of conversation groups said it would continue to fight against approval.

The body, which includes Buglife Scotland, Butterfly Conservation Scotland, Marine Conservation Society, National Trust for Scotland, Plantlife Scotland, RSPB Scotland and the Scottish Wildlife Trust, said: “If approved and built this golf course would damage an area which is incredibly important for wildlife, and heavily protected by several environmental designations.”

It went on: “The proposals would completely destroy over 14 hectares of internationally important, unique, and irreplaceable, dune habitats. The risk of disturbance would be widespread as the development site includes over 140 hectares of the protected wildlife site. The proposed construction of the golf course would result in significant disruption to the natural dune processes and ecosystems.”

However, developer Todd Warnock says his £10 million proposal would protect, not damage, local flora and fauna, bringing “significant economic and environmental benefits”.

When the application was called-in in August, he told reporters: “Highland Council’s north planning applications committee, as the competent planning authority, took an emphatic decision in June and, apart from a single narrow objection from Scottish Natural Heritage, the statutory bodies involved are not opposed to the plans after a comprehensive assessment.

“The project also has overwhelming support from local people.”

A UK Site of Special Scientific Interest and a European Special Protected Area, Coul Links, near Embo, is home to numerous bird and insect species.

Warnock said his development has “environmental integrity at its heart” and would aid, not harm bird species.