SNP veteran Fergus Ewing has become embroiled in an “astroturfing” row after he claimed that plans for an 18-hole golf course on a protected Scottish dune system represent a battle of “the Highland David versus the wealthy metropolitan pressure groups’ Goliath” – despite the plans having the backing of a US billionaire.

The former rural affairs secretary used the rhetoric as he spoke out in favour of a golf development at Coul Links, north of Dornoch, which is a protected natural site under three different designations.

Plans for the golf course were approved by Highland Council in December, before being “called in” by Scottish Government ministers – who will now make the final decision on whether they can go ahead.

Earlier in the week, Ewing joined LibDem MP Jamie Stone, Labour MSP Rhoda Grant, and Tory MSPs Edward Mountain and Jamie Halcro Johnston in calling for the plans to be approved.

Painting a picture of a “Highland David versus the wealthy metropolitan pressure groups’ Goliath”, Ewing claimed that for ministers to refuse the application would be to “kowtow to powerful pressure groups [which are] amongst the wealthiest in Europe”.

However, the claim has been branded “ridiculous” because the plans for a golf course are backed by American billionaire Mike Keiser, who will step in to fund construction if the application is approved.

Dr Tom Dargie, the lead ecologist with the Not Coul campaign group, told the Sunday National: “I find the analogy a bit laughable.

“[Communities4Coul (C4C)] claims to represent a small community, but in fact they're not a community organisation. They're a gang of five – and they are well-resourced in the background.

“To cast themselves as the small people against this great monolith, when in fact, they are backed by a billionaire, is simply ridiculous. This is what astroturfing is all about. It's misrepresentation.”

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Green MSP Ariane Burgess, who represents the Highlands, said the “idea that a billionaire developer is being oppressed by the RSPB and Ramblers Scotland is beyond laughable”.

She went on: “We’ve been here before. An American billionaire turns up, uses their resources to run roughshod over local and national opposition, and threatens to destroy a unique site of environmental and scientific significance in order to build a golf course.”

Keiser and US investor Todd Warnock were behind a previous application from Coul Links Ltd to build a golf course on the site before that was rejected by Government ministers in 2020.

Early in 2021, C4C was set up, and in 2023, the group submitted another application to build a course at Coul Links (below). If successful, C4C has said it will disband and Keiser will take over the project.

In 2023, The Ferret reported that C4C and Coul Links Ltd shared a correspondence address.

The National: The meeting will discuss the controversial plan for a golf course on the sand dunes near Embo in Sutherland

C4C director Gordon Sutherland said that “in order to create a truly world-class golfing destination that will benefit East Sutherland and Coul Links for generations to come, [Keiser’s] backing and expertise is essential”.

He went on: “People in East Sutherland want and need this development, which will not only create significant employment opportunities in an area struggling with the serious social and economic impacts of accelerating depopulation but also ensure the long-term future of a unique area of natural habitat.

“C4C is a community-led, not-for-profit group, entirely funded by donations, that came together in the Dornoch Firth area to create these exciting and locally important plans. Most of the experts who have provided their assistance to us have done so for free because they understand the importance of the project to our area.”

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Both Sutherland and Ewing stressed that C4C had “never made any secret over who will deliver their plans if they are allowed to go ahead”.

The former rural affairs secretary (below) went on: “This goes to the very heart of the question of who knows what is best for the Highlands and whose voices should count.

“Is it the local people who have made their views and desires absolutely clear in a community ballot and through their council, or is it wealthy, remote and unaccountable pressure groups, supported by unelected quangos?

“There is nothing ‘laughable’ or ‘ridiculous’ about a group of volunteers such as C4C wanting to contribute to a better future for their local area.”

The National:

Previously, C4C has pointed to analysis of around 1000 comments left on the Highland Council website about their application for a golf course as proof that the plans have local support.

Although the total number of comments saw objections outnumber support by around 2:1, C4C said the ratio flipped when the scope was narrowed down. The group claimed that among those living in the Dornoch and Embo postcodes, people were in favour of the development by 4:1.

Dargie, who has lived in the area since 1990, said that majority support “falls off extremely quickly” if the definition of local is expanded to include people living nearby but in different postcodes, such as in Tain or Golspie.

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He added: “Take a wider view of the Highlands, and you will find that support for opposition is in the majority.”

Questions have also been asked of C4C’s claims that the site will “create hundreds of new jobs”, with campaigners pointing to the world-class course at the nearby Royal Dornoch Golf Club, which in 2022 said it had 40 employees.

The Coul Links dune system forms part of the Loch Fleet Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and the Dornoch Firth and Loch Fleet Special Protection Area (SPA). It is also protected as a “Ramsar site” under the International Convention on Wetlands, which was signed in 1971.

C4C claimed that building a golf course on “about 0.1% of this SSSI … will generate enough money to restore and protect the whole of the Coul Links site”.

But Dargie, an expert ecologist who has “surveyed virtually all of the sand dunes and machair in Scotland”, rejected the group’s claims.

He said: “I continue to do research and I have several large projects, mainly in the Inner Hebrides and the Western Isles at the moment, advising FTSE 100 companies on how to safely get through a machair system with tricky developments.

“What [C4C] has done is pay no attention to what is protected and what is not. The SSSI has about 150 hectares of habitat. We will have at least 16 hectares of habitat change, damage and loss. That is more than 10%, but they manufacture a number which is less than 1%.”

According to the official listing on NatureScot, the entire Loch Fleet SSSI is around 1232 hectares, but an agreement covering the Coul Links part extends to just 132 hectares.