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The Caithness Biodiversity Action Plan - February 2003
SEA AND COAST - Coastal cliffs and heaths


Coastal cliffs and heaths

Habitats and species
The Caithness coastline is dominated by tall, impressive maritime cliffs and slopes dissected by stony bays and geos (deep incisions at right angles to the cliffs where the sea has excavated along the line of a fault). The cliffs at Dunnet Head are home to the nationally rare Killarney fern.

Black guillemot

Rock stacks such as at Duncansby and Holburn Head provide nesting ledges for a variety of bird life. From May to August our cliffs are home to a collection of nesting seabirds including puffins, fulmars, kittiwakes, razorbills, guillemots, black guillemots, cormorants and shags. The cormorant population is declining, and the only breeding population left in Caithness is at the Ord.

Coastal asters

Some of the best remaining examples of maritime heath in Scotland occur along the north and east Caithness coastline at places such as Sandside Head near Reay and along the East Coast from Berriedale up to Wick. The rare Scottish primrose can be found along the cliff tops among close-cropped maritime heath as well as in coastal grassland. Several rare or scarce eyebright species also live in short grassland close to the coast.

Main issues

  • Loss of coastal heath to agricultural intensification or forestry is less of a threat today.  Indeed undergrazing is more of an issue as many areas have been fenced off to protect livestock.  The growth of tall vegetation and encroachment of bracken is a threat to biodiversity, and we should strive to protect and manage the areas we have by ensuring that these areas can be grazed occasionally.

  • Fly tipping in geos and ditches is a problem in Caithness, and help with the costs of legal disposal is needed.

  • With increasing access to land, disturbance to nesting seabirds and the removal of rare plants is an increasing threat.

Current biodiversity projects

Some farmers have entered into agri-environment schemes to protect coastal grasslands.

Facilities such as the Waterlines Centre at Lybster and the Heritage Centres at Dunbeath and Wick provide coastal interpretation and information.  The Lybster Heritage Trust promotes paths up from the harbour and along the coast, and the Caithness Ranger Service offers guided walks along the coast.

Opportunities for action
  • Establish appropriate grazing of coastal grasslands and heathlands.

  • Disseminate best practice in methods of clearing bracken, and encourage coastal managers to control invasive species such as bracken where it threatens rare plants.

  • Encourage more farmers to apply for coastal heath management under agri-environment schemes so that greater areas remain actively managed. Prescriptions may need to be adapted locally to ensure that management is effective. 

  • Encourage bush and tree cover in coastal locations, to provide a rest and refuelling site for migrating birds.

  • Create safe access routes to viewing points that donít disturb birds, such as at Duncansby.

  • Promote additional viewing points and a coastal interpretative trail for North Scotlandís distinctive cliff-top vegetation and nesting seabirds.