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World-class. Triple-protected.

Coul Links

HIDDEN AMIDST the many renowned golf courses on the East Sutherland coast, Coul Links emerges as a rare gem in the tapestry of Scottish biodiversity. For over 6,000 years, this ecosystem has remained untouched by development, brimming with life, quietly thriving as an ancient Highland wilderness.

Celebrated for its world-class natural assets, Coul Links is triple-protected under the esteemed designations SSSI, SPA, and Ramsar. The ecological significance of this place cannot be understated — a sanctuary to 1,425+ species, including the globally unique Fonseca’s Seed-Fly, it sets a remarkable standard for a sand dune habitat.

Beyond its status as a cornerstone of Scottish biodiversity, the dunes, wetlands and grasslands of Coul Links naturally provide an immeasurably valuable portfolio of benefits to society such as carbon storage, coastal protection, pollination and well-being.

The effects of climate change and biodiversity loss already impact our lives in many ways. Ring-fencing rare, healthy ecosystems like Coul Links is key to mitigating these risks and to building a more resilient, sustainable future.

A jewel in the crown of Scottish biodiversity.

since 1973.

FOR OVER 50 YEARS, Coul Links has been recognised by UK laws, European directive & international treaty as deserving of legal protection. And little wonder – what we find in this corner of the Scottish Highlands is a five-star natural environment.

It is the purity & wildness of Coul Links and the wider area that astonishes those who visit. The variety of species and landscapes that exist here are rare. Local communities deeply value their natural heritage and the benefits it brings to their quality of life.

No less than three legal designations safeguard the integrity of the Coul Links ecosystem from compromise by development. This triple-lock provides peace of mind, representing an appreciation by local & wider society that this place is out of bounds.

The SSSI designation is the basic building block of nature legal conservation in the UK. Most other protections, such as SPA, SAC, Ramsar sites, NNR, and others, are based on it.

Coul Links is included in the Loch Fleet SSSI because it is an exceptional example of a complete, mature sand dune system and forms an integral element of the estuary system.

Except for some grazing, the dunes are relatively undisturbed by human development and as such the dunes remain unfixed, dynamic and natural. Additionally, the unique topography of the dunes allows water to collect in the dune slacks through the winter months.

These physical characteristics host a complex matrix of intermingling habitat types forming a rich tapestry featuring an exceptionally high number of species for a site so far north.

The vascular plant assemblage at Coul Links is particularly impressive and it is also one of the UK’s top sites for its lichens. The Fonseca’s seed fly is endemic to these dunes, meaning it’s found nowhere else in the world. New species are still being found above ground, with underground species yet to be investigated.

In short, the value of Coul Links as a site for biodiversity is off the scale.

SPAs represent the very best of Scotland’s nature and are internationally important for threatened habitats and species. These areas are selected to protect one or more rare, threatened or vulnerable bird species, or certain regularly occurring migratory birds.

Dornoch Firth and Loch Fleet SPA provides a vital habitat for Wigeon, Teal, Scaup, Greylag Goose, Dunlin, Oystercather, Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew, Osprey and Redshank. Wigeon and Teal use the Coul Links sector in particular.

Ramsar sites are classified as Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. Its mission is “the conservation and wise use of all wetlands through local and national actions and international cooperation, as a contribution towards achieving sustainable development throughout the world”.

A special feature of Coul Links is the flooding which happens in the dune slacks during the colder months. The water table begins to rise, forming dozens of ponds of varying size to cover around 30% of the Coul Links area. It is an annual cycle around which certain habitat types have formed. Additionally, winter birds use it for shelter and to forage.

The Coul Links wetlands, then, are an integral feature of the Dornoch Firth and Loch Fleet Ramsar site which has been designated since 1997. As signatories of the Convention, the UK Government is obliged to protect the site in its entirety. 

An ancient, complex ecosystem.

The unusual topography of Coul Links is one of several factors that make it so biodiverse.

Coul Links is a complete & functioning sand dune system, something which is now rare to find. But the particular physical characteristics of this wild landscape make it unlike any other sand dune system.

Backed by sandstone, it slopes gently towards the sea, the groundwater flowing through it. In winter, as the groundwater increases in volume, it backs up and rises to the surface to form a multitude of pools of various sizes in the slacks between the dunes which cover almost a third of the area

This dynamic, seasonal flooding in the dune slacks affects the type of plants that are able to grow in those areas compared to the higher, drier areas. There, we find the dune grassland habitat type closer to the shore and dune heath habitat on the older, more established dunes. Coul Links also features a number of other habitat types, including an area of saltmarsh that is flooded at regular intervals with seawater.

These habitat types are intertwined, allowing a remarkable variety of life to exist together on a relatively small site.


A critical mass of species.

More than the sum of its parts.

1,425 species and counting. The soils haven’t even been looked at yet. The habitat matrix  at Coul Links supports 246 butterfly and moth species, an incredible number for a a site so far north. There are 410 other invertebrates, 254 higher plants, 130 bird species, 130 lichens, 119 Fungi, 112 mosses and liverworts, 18 mammals and 5 reptiles. This sand dune ecosystem may even rival forests for its biodiversity.

But the numbers alone do not tell the whole story. They do not capture their various weird and wonderful life cycles. They do they describe the many instances of interdependence and symbiosis between speciesCoul Links is a grand tapestry of Scottish biodiversity, an interconnected, wild web of life that has lain undisturbed for over 6,000 years.

To explore Coul Links through the eyes of a botanist and a social researcher, take a trip through this beautiful visual journey by Ben Averis and Audrey Verma.


The Secret Life of Coul Links