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The Sutherland Biodiversity Action Plan - October 2003

The landscape of Sutherland is studded with freshwater lochs, ranging upwards in size to the 18 mile long Loch Shin. Lochs are particularly numerous on the gneiss in the west, where Assynt and Eddrachillis alone muster over 1,000. These lochs are fed and drained to the sea by many miles of rivers and burns. Marshes and wet meadows occupy the flood plains of some of the larger rivers. The variation in size, depth and geographical setting
of these water bodies has given rise to a varied and distinctive flora and fauna. Social and economic use of Sutherland’s rivers and lochs for diverse purposes such as hydro-electric generation, township water supply, flour mills, salmon smolt rearing and angling have all harnessed and influenced the quality or quantity of the water. Land management within the catchment also has an effect.

Achness Falls, Invercassley

Biodiversity objectives
To maintain and enhance clean, natural water throughout Sutherland’s watercourses and wetlands, and restore migratory fish stocks towards 1960s levels.

To map the distribution of all national and local priority freshwater species and habitats, and manage all of Sutherland’s watercourses accordingly.

To make future developers aware of the biodiversity of freshwaters within Sutherland, and ensure there is no damage to the freshwater environment.
To undertake a speedy and effective response to the occurrence of unwanted invaders such as mink.

Specific habitats discussed in Section 2
Rivers & Lochs

Key Issues
A. Pollution

Issues: Agricultural and forestry run-off, fish farming and leakage from septic tanks are potential sources of nutrient enrichment, which is detrimental to our rivers and lochs. Incorrect use of fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides and sheep dip can all have a serious effect on rivers and lochs.

Opportunities: In recent years, forestry techniques have improved and opportunities exist to restructure existing plantations to reduce any detrimental effects on freshwaters. Farmers and crofters must continue to be vigilant and adhere to legislation and existing codes of good practice regarding the use of chemicals.

Future actions:
Raise awareness of pollution issues through education, training and practical demonstration projects (Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, Scottish Executive Environment & Rural Affairs Department, Scottish Agricultural College, Farming & Wildlife Advisory Group, farmers and crofters).

Encourage local sewage systems involving reed beds in small villages to protect waterways (Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, Scottish Water, the Highland Council, community councils).

 Ben Loyal from Loch an Hahel

In conjunction with several estates, RSPB Scotland and the Highland Council Ranger Service have installed islands on lochs in north and west Sutherland to provide enhanced nesting sites for black-throated divers.

Future actions:
Undertake the works identified in the various Catchment Management Plans, and encourage land managers to work together over the production and implementation of further Catchment Management Plans (West Sutherland Fisheries Trust, District Fishery Boards, land owners, Scottish Natural Heritage).

Restore or stabilise river banks where current erosion is destroying spawning grounds or the natural movement of fish (as above).

Clean and restore silted or overgrown spawning grounds for both salmon and trout, and clean out culverts and blocked burns (as above).

Identify culverts that currently block fish migration through their design, and make them ‘fish friendly’ (West Sutherland Fisheries Trust, District Fishery Boards, the Highland Council, Forestry Commission, land owners).

B. Habitat modifications
Issues: River and lochside developments, bank engineering, gravel extraction, water supply schemes and hydropower projects alter erosion and sedimentation patterns. Road works and winter maintenance in particular can interfere with the movement of animals, especially fish. Some watercourses have been modified to improve drainage or to create fishing pools for salmon or trout, but straightening out natural meanders increases the water flow and can result in a deposition of sediment that can smother the spawning beds of salmon or trout, and damage freshwater pearl mussel populations. In some areas, wetland and waterside vegetation has been lost due to land drainage, flood defence, bank protection works, cultivation, forestry or heavy grazing by cattle, sheep or deer. Overgrazed or heavily trampled river banks are susceptible to erosion during floods.

Opportunities: When carrying out in-stream or riverside works, care must be taken not to modify the structure and patterns of water flow to the detriment of freshwater habitats and species. Particular attention should be paid to culverts beneath roads and forest tracks in order to maintain water flow. Fencing the banks, planting deep-rooted trees such as willow and alder and installing water troughs will help to stabilise the riversides. Land managers and the public should be made aware of the good works that have already taken place, and of further works that can be done to improve riparian habitats along river and stream banks. Current projects: Some estates in Sutherland already undertake works to improve the riparian habitat along river and stream banks. Catchment Management Plans and detailed habitat surveys have been undertaken in several systems and a list of recommendations produced to improve freshwater productivity.

The River Oykel is part of a large bid for EU LIFE funding being drawn together for designated rivers by the Association of District Salmon Fishery Boards, with support from Scottish Natural Heritage and the Scottish Executive. The Kyle of Sutherland Board has suggested a programme of habitat improvement measures including the restructuring of commercial forestry in riparian areas, the planting of broadleaves on one of the main tributaries and the blocking of hill drains to enhance water quality and reduce siltation of the spawning beds, with help from the Forestry Commission and other land owners.

Allt Nan Uamh with Braebag
Behind, West Sutherland

C. Reduction in fish populations

Issues: Numbers of salmon and trout have been declining due to many factors including habitat modifications and the loss of spawning beds.

Opportunities: In addition to the habitat improvements mentioned above, there are opportunities to improve fish populations through restocking projects. Restocking with salmon and trout should be managed to retain the genetic purity
of the populations.

Current projects: One hatchery has been recommissioned and another built for the rearing of
trout and salmon to an un-fed fry stage. The trout are being put out on hill lochs where natural spawning is scarce and numbers have declined, and the salmon are being returned to the rivers of their origins on an annual basis. The West Sutherland Fisheries Trust is undertaking an ongoing project to provide baseline information on fish populations and measure the success or otherwise of restoration efforts. Fish captured in river estuaries are tagged, measured, weighed and sea lice counts made prior to release. This aids to tracing fish movements and the sea lice counts assist in comparison to fish farm locations.

Future action:
Raise awareness amongst visiting anglers of where and what method of fishing is allowed (West Sutherland Fisheries Trust, District Fishery Boards, land owners).

D. Flood protection

Issues: The projected increase in flood frequency and intensity due to climate change is likely to heighten the demand for flood relief works. Hard engineering solutions can cause erosion, sedimentation and flooding downstream.

Opportunities: When tackling flooding problems, greater consideration needs to be given to the rest of the catchment, particularly to possible downstream effects.

Future action:
Manage wetlands to reduce flood events (the Highland Council, Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, Scottish Natural Heritage, land owners).

E. Species introductions

Issues: Invasive, non-native species of fish,
mammals, invertebrates and plants cause problems for water courses and aquatic life. Examples include mink and minnows.

Opportunities: We should ensure any reintroductions are bred from local stocks where possible, avoid releasing non-native species in Sutherland, and take steps to eradicate problematic

Future action:
Monitor the effects of, and if possible remove, mink from North West Sutherland (fishing estates, West Sutherland Fisheries Trust, District Salmon Fishery Boards and Scottish Natural Heritage).

F. Lack of Awareness

Issues: There is a lack of awareness about freshwater habitats and species, and a lack of knowledge about the distribution of many freshwater species.

Opportunities: There are opportunities for the Fisheries Trusts and Boards to work with the ranger service over the provision of guided walks and events, and the installation of bird hides or interpretation panels at strategic locations to raise awareness of the freshwater environment.

Current projects: The pupils of Stoer Primary School are working on a big project to find out ‘What lives in our loch?’ involving the erection of a hide and the purchase of microscopes, binoculars and other equipment to look at the loch environment. Various freshwater education projects have taken place in Bettyhill and Achfary Primary Schools, focussing on the Rhioconich and Strathnaver Lochs. The West Sutherland Fisheries Trust is undertaking a project entitled ‘Salmon in the Classroom’ to raise awareness of the life cycle and habitat requirements
of salmon.

The Kyle of Sutherland Board is also considering establishing a salmon interpretation centre in Bonar Bridge to inform the local community and visitors about salmon management issues, establish links with local primary schools and raise awareness of the importance of salmon and the freshwater environment in general.

Future actions:
Develop the ‘Salmon in the Classroom’ project to enable children to raise a small number of eggs, measuring temperature and other variables, before planting out the fry in a neighbouring stream, linked with electrofishing to show the different species and sizes present as well as kick sampling to look at invertebrates and classroom work to look at the life cycle of the salmon (West Sutherland Fisheries Trust, primary schools).

Produce a Freshwater Atlas indicating the occurrence of native freshwater fish (trout, char and eels), pearl mussels and introduced species (rainbow trout, golden trout and any coarse fish) (Highland Biological Recording Group, Scottish Natural Heritage, West Sutherland Fisheries Trust, District Fishery Boards, fishermen, land owners).