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The Caithness Biodiversity Action Plan - February 2003



Forests and woodlands are important features of the landscape, representing a key financial asset, a source of employment and a community resource. People in Caithness, a county with little native woodland cover, particularly value their semi-natural and planted woodlands.

The location and condition of our woodlands has been shaped by both environmental factors such as climate, soil type and browsing pressure, and by past and present management regimes.

Biodiversity Objectives
  • Ensure all semi-natural woodland is protected, and encourage the expansion and improved
    management of existing woodlands.
  • Create new native woodlands, including species
    such as birch, willow, rowan, alder, hazel and
  • Encourage the sympathetic planting and
    expansion of native trees and shrubs along the
    banks of rivers, streams and lochs.
  • Develop links and corridors between existing
    areas of semi-natural woodland to strengthen the
    forest habitat network for a number of woodland
  • Control deer and rabbits to encourage the natural
    regeneration of semi-natural woodland from
    existing seed sources.
  • Control pest species including foxes and crows at
    woodland edges, particularly when close to
    wetland and peatland sites, to benefit ground
    nesting bird species.

Woodland Cover Pie Chart
(Source: Forestry Commission, 2002)

Less than 10% of Caithness is covered in trees, and the majority of this is conifer plantations. The county supports 15,588 hectares of coniferous woodland, and only 1,057 hectares of broadleaved trees.

Semi-natural woodland

Habitats and species

Semi-natural woodlands are rare in Caithness, limited to some straths and stream edges such as at Berriedale, Dunbeath, Latheronwheel and Dirlot Gorge. They are the remnants of a more extensive native tree cover that once existed in the area and as such, they form a valuable refuge for our woodland flora and fauna.

Latheronwheel Woods

The main type of natural woodland in Caithness was birch woodland, dominated by downy birch and including some rowan and willow shrubs.

This type of woodland has completely disappeared in Caithness, but would regenerate on ground that is currently open peat moor if conditions were suitable. It would then accommodate roe deer, yellowhammer, greenfinch, tawny owl, kestrel, buzzard and raven, which are natural residents of this habitat.

More diverse, riparian woodland occurred and remained as remnants in river valleys and on the steep slopes of valley sides. Depending on the quality of the soil, these woodlands can be hazel woods or alder woods, but they almost always include downy birch and rowan.

As well as supporting specialised insects and other wildlife, river valley woods also help to stabilise soil and provide key nutrients to rivers through run-off and leaf litter. Riparian woodland is believed to be a key factor in the establishment and success of river game fishing.

Habitat Map

Main issues

  • The majority of semi-natural woodlands are isolated and in poor condition through logging for firewood, inappropriate heather burning and heavy grazing by deer, rabbits and domestic stock.

  • Woodland regeneration is constrained by the need for stock or deer fencing, although some restoration and expansion has occurred through fencing or planting programmes in the last 10-15 years. Bird strikes are less of an issue than further south, but fences create an unnatural woodland edge and structure. Reduction in grazing pressure by more effective deer control and shepherding is an alternative.

  • Riparian woodlands present a great opportunity to help stabilise river and stream banks, and to give cover and a food source to fish. However, the length of boundary fences required means that establishment costs are higher than in other woodland schemes.

  • Cutting of firewood and removal of deadwood in some small woodlands is a threat, as deadwood provides an important habitat for many species of insects and beetles.

  • Development, particularly for house building, is a threat to small woodlands and individual trees.

  • Introduced species such as rhododendron and salmonberry present a threat to semi-natural woodlands, if allowed to spread uncontrollably.

  • Woodlands harbour predators such as foxes and crows, which prey on moorland birds and young lambs. With fewer gamekeepers employed today than in the past, there has been a reduction in the control of these pest species.


Current biodiversity projects

The Forestry Commission provides grants through the Scottish Forestry Grants Scheme, for biodiversity improvements in existing woodlands. Within native woodlands the grants are designed to improve the ecological value in relation to native woodland Habitat Action Plans.

These grants can fund management plans, protection from inappropriate grazing by wild or domestic animals, removal of invasive vegetation, ground preparation to encourage natural regeneration, net cost of essential thinning/small scale felling, small scale planting, blocking of drains to re-create wetland habitats, appropriate deadwood management and ride management.

There have been many semi-natural regeneration and planting schemes in Caithness in recent years, and the area of new broadleaf woodland has increased significantly.

There are woodland walks along the banks of the Wick and Thurso Rivers, and up Dunbeath Strath. The Ranger Service lead woodland walks, including an evening walk to hunt for bats.

Opportunities for action

  • Encourage some heather moorland to develop into birch-dominated woodland by reducing grazing pressure and fencing in some areas.

  • Develop links between existing areas of semi-natural woodland, particularly along watercourses, by fencing and reducing grazing pressure.

  • Initiate local small-scale tree nurseries to grow local provenance trees that could be sourced by woodland managers.

  • Undertake a countywide survey of trees and associated wildlife.

  • Identify and promote local use and possible local markets for timber in the future.

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