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Caithness Biodiversity Index

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The Sutherland Biodiversity Action Plan - October 2003


Sutherland has a highly indented coastline extending, as the cormorant flies, for some 80 miles
in the west and north and 40 miles in the south-east.

Long and deep sea lochs like Loch Eriboll, Loch Inchard, Loch Laxford and Loch a’ Chairn Bhain in the north and west contrast with the shallower waters of Loch Fleet and the Dornoch Firth in the south-east. Much of the coastline is rocky, with offshore islands. There are substantial cliffs at Stoer,
on Handa and around Cape Wrath, and the north and west coasts support large areas of maritime heath. In contrast, broad sandy bays occur at Sandwood, Balnakeil and Brora, and the mudflats at Loch Fleet and the Kyle of Tongue provide good feeding grounds for wading birds.

Strathy Beach

Biodiversity objectives
  • To work towards local control and sustainable
    management of inshore fisheries around the
    coast of Sutherland.
  • To encourage all users of the marine resource
    to work together to reduce any potentially
    damaging operations.
  • To encourage the fish farming industry to
    demonstrate a measurable reduction in
    negative environmental impacts.
  • To work with local communities towards the
    designation and management of a Marine
    Reserve within inshore waters in Sutherland.


Specific habitats discussed in Section 2
The sea
Beaches, dunes & machair
Coastal cliffs & heaths
Key issues

A. Fishing
Kinlochbervie Harbour

Issues: A major challenge in managing inshore waters is to accommodate all those fishing it and to ensure the maintenance of stocks. Many commercially fished species such as herring and cod have undergone population crashes in the last fifty years, threatening both biodiversity and employment. There are concerns surrounding the damage to the seabed, spawning grounds and bottom dwelling flora and fauna caused by inshore trawling and scallop dredging, the effects of pollutants on planktonic diversity and the resulting impact on the food web, and the potential danger to marine mammals of accidental capture and drowning in fishing nets or creels.

Opportunities: One opportunity to address this issue and enhance the biodiversity of our inshore waters is for conservation organisations to work with fishermen’s organisations towards the sustainable management of inshore fisheries. In sensitive areas, low impact harvesting methods should be encouraged. Examples include scallop diving rather than dredging, and techniques such as escape panels (to allow undersized crustaceans to escape) and biodegradable catches in creels to reduce ghost fishing (where creels or pots are lost at sea, but continue to trap shellfish and crustaceans).

Current projects: There is some interest in seabed “ranching” of scallops and crustaceans through Several Orders (allocation of the fishing rights for a specific species e.g. scallops, mussels, within a defined area to one person).  The Highland Shellfish Management Organisation is in the process of applying for a Regulating Order for the Highland Coastline, which will help local fishermen to manage the fishing effort within their inshore waters. It has also supported two new posts in North Highland to develop local shellfish management plans and projects to maintain and enhance the shellfish stock.

Oyster Farming

Future action:
Investigate a reputed decline in the lobster catch during the last 10 years, and undertake a restocking and v-notching project (Highlands & Islands Fishermen’s Association, local fishermen).

B. Aquaculture
Issues: There are concerns throughout Scotland and
the UK about the environmental impacts of fish farming. Issues include the escape of farmed fish and interbreeding with wild fish, the transfer of sea lice between farmed fish and wild salmon and trout,
the impact of fish faeces and medicine residues on the seabed and immediate environment, and the impact of acoustic devices to deter seals and cetaceans.

Opportunities: Area Management Agreements between fish farming and wild fisheries interests have been drawn up to reduce potential conflicts. Aquaculture Framework Plans have been prepared for Loch Eriboll, Loch Inchard and Eddrachillis Bay to help site finfish and shellfish farms away from areas where they are likely to conflict with other interests. Automated feeders and feedback loops will help to reduce uneaten fish food entering the marine environment.

Current projects: Some fish farming enterprises use seal scarers that have a very low noise output so as to minimise impact on cetaceans, and fallow cage sites for a longer period than the usual six weeks, to prevent a build-up of faeces on the seabed. Codes of good practice exist and all new aquaculture developments must ordinarily undertake an Environmental Impact Assessment, which should identify any potentially damaging operations and ways of mitigating them.

Future action:
Ensure all Environmental Impact Assessments take account of impacts on local nd national priority habitats and species (Crown Estate, The Highland Council, Scottish Natural Heritage, fish farm companies and environmental consultants).

Salmon Farming Loch Eriboll

C. Pollution and litter Issues: Sewage, litter and run-off from the land are all potential contaminants, which could cause harm to marine habitats or species. However, with a reduction in point source pollution from pipe outfalls, water quality is improving and the greatest threats are now from diffuse sources such as agricultural run-off. Marine litter (from fly tipping and marine users, etc.) may be a hazard to coastal and marine life and an eyesore. Plastic bags, containers and discarded fishing line and nets can cause particular damage as they are not biodegradable, and some local communities regularly organise ‘beach clean-ups’.

Opportunities: Marine pollution and litter can be reduced by educating and encouraging people to dispose of their waste responsibly. Enhanced awareness of practices that minimise waste, better provision for recycling and help with legal disposal are needed.

Current projects: Estuarine and coastal waters are monitored and classified by Scottish Environmental Protection Agency. Harbour authorities providing berthing facilities provide for the collection of waste.  Marine litter leaflets have been produced by the Highland Council and the Marine Conservation Agency in the last five years.

Future action:
Identify a lead partner, with a budget, to tackle the problem of marine litter, and employ local contractors to carry out the works. Place recycling facilities at harbours and raise awareness of marine issues (The Highland Council, Scottish Environmental Protection Agency, marineusers).

D. Coastal management
Issues: Erosion from rises in the sea level and man made influences such as sand extraction and recreational pressures from bikes or camp fires threaten beach, dune and machair habitats. These ‘soft’ coastal habitats are dynamic and mobile - they absorb wave energy, reducing the impact of erosion from the sea. If the sand is removed or the covering vegetation damaged, the buffering effect of the dune system may be lost, exposing the land behind to the forces of the sea. Machair habitats are easily damaged and slow to repair, so rapid changes in management that don’t take this into account should be avoided. Both over and under-grazing are potentially damaging, and care should be taken to avoid erosion from poaching or trampling.  Loss of coastal heath to agricultural intensification or forestry is less of a threat today, but we should strive to protect and manage the areas we have left, as they are important in international terms. Many of the cliff tops are no longer grazed, as farmers and crofters have fenced them off to reduce the loss of livestock. Uncontrolled muirburning is a big problem in parts of north and west Sutherland, and is considered in more detail in the Mountain and Moor section.

Opportunities: In sensitive areas, problems caused by unrestricted access, sand extraction or inappropriate grazing levels could be tackled through enhanced management, and restoration (marram planting for dune fixing) works undertaken where required. For coastal heaths, land managers could be encouraged to graze some areas lightly and training could be provided in muirburning and related issues.

Future actions:
Improve signage and rope-off areas to prevent unwitting disturbance to beach-nesting birds such as little terns and ringed plovers (land owners, rangers, Scottish Natural Heritage).
Raise awareness of issues surrounding rare species of bees and wasps, and protect isolated populations from habitat loss or spraying.

Scourie Wildlife Hide

E. Wildlife tourism
Issues: There has been a recent increase in wildlife tourism, with shore-based cetacean watching and boat trips out to Handa Island, Faraid Head, Cape Wrath and along many of the sea lochs attracting many visitors.

Opportunities: The Scottish Marine Wildlife Tour Operators produced a code of good practice entitled ‘Navigate With Nature’ and the Moray Firth Partnership has developed The Dolphin Space Programme to minimise conflicts between marine wildlife and power boats. Assuming boat operators adhere to these recommendations, this is thought to have minimal negative impacts on marine life.

Current projects: The Highland Council Ranger Service undertake shore-based wildlife watching tours to view marine mammals and sea birds. A leaflet entitled ‘Where to Watch Whales and Dolphins Around the North Highland Coast’ is currently being prepared.

F. Wider issues
Issues: The Pentland Firth and the Minch are major shipping lanes, and there is a risk of ships running aground. Dredging for navigational purposes and aggregate extraction cause damage to the seabed.  The Cape Wrath area is used by the Ministry of Defence as a bombardment range, and large portions of the Minch are used by the Royal Navy in submarine exercises. The effects of military and sonic activities on breeding seabird colonies and marine mammals is not known. Pressures for further renewable energy developments through wave, tidal and wind power are increasing. Climate change is likely to increase both storm intensity and frequency, leading to coastal erosion. There may be an increased pressure to improve coastal defences, particularly in the main settlements.

Opportunities: The Highland Council is currently lobbying to re-route shipping out of the Minch. All large proposals will have to undergo an Environmental Impact Assessment, which should identify the threats they pose to the biodiversity of the area, and ways to mitigate them. Consideration needs to be given to ideas such as managed retreat (allowing some areas to flood to protect others) in coastal zone management plans.

Future actions:
Monitor sea level rise & develop coastal management plans.
Ensure the impacts on national and local priority habitats and species are considered in all future Environmental Impact Assessments.

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