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The Caithness Biodiversity Action Plan - February 2003


Farmers and crofters are stewards of the countryside. Over successive generations the cultivation of crops and grazing of stock has resulted in a rich mosaic of habitats that provides food and shelter for many once common species that are now in decline elsewhere in the UK.

Nearly 1,400 km2 or 78% of Caithness land area is under agricultural tenure, and in addition to the grassland, arable crops and field margins considered in this chapter, farmers and crofters manage most of the other habitats considered in this plan.

Biodiversity Objectives
Secure a future for upland farming and crofting that allows land managers to use their skills and affinity with the land to the best advantage of the environment. Implement whole farm plans that combine business and environmental objectives. Reward good environmental management (best practice) through better funded and more flexible agri-environment schemes, and through the market place by securing a premium for locally produced goods. Maintain and enhance existing areas of wildlife habitat and encourage the creation and maintenance of wildlife corridors such as hedges. Increase public understanding of the very real link between agricultural activity and environmental protection.

Land Use Pie Chart
(Source: June 2002 Agricultural Census)

The June 2002 Agricultural Census states that agriculture supports 546 full-time and 1,514 part-time jobs in Caithness. There are 1,030 crofting units, 325 farming units and 20 common grazings in Caithness. However, the number of holdings is heavily influenced by the fact that many farmers and crofters own or rent more than one holding.

Habitats and species
In the farm and croft land up straths such as at Dunbeath and Berriedale, low intensity farming techniques supports a variety of unimproved, herb-rich grasslands and hay meadows, important habitats in biodiversity terms.

Sheep grazing, Houstry

Caithnessí rough grasslands support good populations of brown hares and field voles, which, along with rabbits, form an important part of the diet of hunting raptors and wildcats. This habitat also supports high populations of insects, which provide a food supply for birds like grey partridge and skylarks.

The sward can include a wide variety of plants such as orchids, devilís bit-scabious, birds-foot trefoil, and meadowsweet.

Recent survey work has shown that Scotland is one of the last areas of Europe where grassland fungi are reasonably widespread, and Caithness contains its share of these. Grassland fungi are generally found on well-drained, well-leached, unfertilised and unimproved sites that are moderately grazed.

Fungi and rainbow

The UK Biodiversity Action Plan splits rough grazing into several categories:

Lowland dry acid grassland occurs on nutrient poor, free-draining soils over acid rocks, sand or gravel, supporting plants such as heath bedstraw and tormentil, and dwarf shrubs such as heather and blaeberry are also present in small quantities.

Purple moor grass and rush pasture occurs on shallow peaty soils. This habitat can be species rich, wet grassland and supports a range of invertebrate life including, slender-striped rufous and several species of snails and flies, as well as wading birds such as snipe and curlew.

Upland calcareous grassland is generally restricted to shallow soils over lime-rich rocks. Despite its name, it can occur down to sea level in exposed conditions, and arctic-alpine plants can be present.

Floodplain grazing marsh is pasture with water filled ditches, which is regularly flooded, grazed and occasionally cut. Wick River Marshes is an example of this habitat type, and it is important for breeding waders such as snipe, lapwing and curlew, and for wintering wildfowl.

Lapwing wing stretching

Improved grasslands and reseeds may be low in plant diversity, but in Caithness they are important feeding areas for many wading birds such as golden plover, lapwing, curlew and redshank. Flocks of twite and migrant and over-wintering geese feed on many of the improved grassland fields, and some raptors utilise these fields for hunting.

Where these grasslands have wet patches and areas of longer vegetation, they provide greater opportunities for corncrakes and other wildlife.

Habitat Map

Main issues

  • With increasingly wet summers, the area of hay has declined while silage production has increased nearly five-fold in the last 15 years, creating increased effluent and pollution risks. The widespread use of more aggressive grass species in reseeds to create denser swards, along with earlier cutting of silage prevents the successful rearing of ground-nesting birds such as corncrake, lapwing, curlew and redshank. Where birds do attempt to breed, cutting the crop from the centre out in one direction allows the fledglings to escape through cover.
  • Inbye croft land is increasingly left unworked. The apportionment of common grazings leads to reseeding and fertilising of semi-natural grassland and moorland, with an associated loss in the biodiversity value.
  • Where grasslands are species poor, it can be a result of inappropriate management. The decline in hill cattle since the 1970s is contributing to the decline in the biodiversity of some grasslands. Cattle grazing is often beneficial because of the non-selective manner in which they graze and trample the ground.

Increased use of sheep dips and cattle drenches leads to a loss in invertebrates, and there are disposal issues with sheep dip, although regulation and the increased use of mobile dippers has reduced the risk of pollution. The use of some broad spectrum, anti-parasitic drugs has reduced the number and variety of insects associated with dung, which are important as food for birds like starlings.

Collecting bales, Stemster

Current biodiversity projects
Some farmers and crofters are managing their grasslands through agri-environment schemes such as the Countryside Premium Scheme, Rural Stewardship Scheme, Organic Aid Scheme and individual management agreements on protected sites. Under the Corncrake Scheme, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds gives payments for the late cutting of hay.


However, many of these schemes are limited by their overall budget, which restricts the number of farmers and crofters that can gain entry to them, and thus limits the agri-environment works that can be undertaken.

The Royal Society Agricultural Benevolent Fund operates a small scheme to collect and recycle black plastic.

Lantra and the Royal Highland Educational Trust held a training day for farmers and crofters in giving presentations to schools.

Opportunities for action
  • Improve the biodiversity of more intensive grassland by taking up options under the Rural Stewardship Scheme. Retain damp areas to help wader chicks, and areas of longer vegetation dominated by iris or nettles to provide cover for birds, in association with the demonstration sites suggested in the Wetland section above, and

  •  Where corncrakes are present, delay cutting of hay until 1 August and use corncrake friendly cutting patterns in association with RSPBís Corncrake Initiative.

  • Participate in projects such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birdsí Farmer Alliance project or Linking Environment and Farming demonstration projects.

  • Encourage the spread of good practice through the Caithness and Sutherland Environmental Group.

  • Raise awareness of land management through school links, leaflets about farm biodiversity inCaithness and greater community involvement in agriculture.

  • Encourage every Primary School to develop a link with a local farm or croft.

  • Improve training in land management skills through college courses in agri-environmental issues and skills such as species-rich grassland and wetland management, woodland and hedge creation, etc.

  • Encourage the British Mycological Society to hold a field visit in Caithness.

  • Improve links with hotels and local outlets, and promote the links between biodiversity and locally produced beef and lamb through labelling and positive media coverage.

  • Set up recycling trials to encourage farmers to compost green / recyclable materials from towns and villages onto agricultural land to reduce landfill needs and fertiliser dependence.

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