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The Caithness Biodiversity Action Plan - February 2003
BOG, MO0R AND HILL - Heather moor

Heather moor

Habitats and species

In places where the peat has ceased to grow, through drainage or where the soils are drier (mineral rich), the vegetation becomes dominated by heather. Left alone, this habitat would gradually transform to birch woodland, but burning and grazing prevents the trees from prospering. Large areas of Caithness consist of heather moor studded with small acid lochs and crossed with burns and rivers. The scale of this land makes it locally important.

There are scattered plants of interest, such as creeping ladyís tresses, but the main natural interest is the bird and insect life. Red-throated and black-throated divers, wigeon, golden plover, short-eared owl, hen harrier, merlin and peregrine falcons inhabit this country.


Cottages and moorland, Braemore

For the past 120 years the heather moor, which is classed as lowland and upland heathland by the UK Biodiversity Action Plan, has been devoted to sporting interest, mainly deer stalking with some grouse shooting and salmon and trout fishing in the lochs and rivers. Sheep have been grazed in varied numbers over the past 200 years, prior to which it was used to graze black cattle. In recent times, large areas of heather moor have been planted with conifer trees.

Main issues

  • Land management by muirburn and grazing has established the landscape we see today. A decline in the profitability of many estate and hill farms has led to a loss of traditional management skills to the detriment of the environment and biodiversity.

  • Maintaining the good quality heather moor will require the retention of stalkers to continue to manage this habitat effectively through effective muirburning, deer management and predator control.

  • High deer and sheep numbers and a decline in shepherding have resulted in increases in rough grassland, dominated by indigestible plants such as tussock grass and purple moor grass, at the expense of heather moorland. This overgrazing also exacerbates localised wind erosion and runoff.

  • Almost none of the ground has been allowed to develop into birch woodland, so the county remains bare of trees to an unnatural degree.

  • Uncontrolled fire remains a considerable threat to the heather moor and conifer plantations. In drier areas damaged by fire or erosion, expansion of bracken can be a threat.

  • All terrain vehicles can be damaging to some of the wetter and steeper areas, leading to increased erosion.

  • Birdsí nests are threatened by egg-collectors, and this threat may be increasing. Illegal persecution of birds of prey is a problem in some localities.

  • Ticks are a major problem to moorland birds and animals in some areas.

  • There has been an increased interest in renewable energy in recent times, with wind farms representing the most favoured option. Care is needed to ensure that any development takes full account of natural interests.


Red deer stag


Habitat map

 

Opportunities for action

  • Encourage moorland managers to work towards an agreed Deer Management Plan.

  • Support active management of heather moorland  and encourage land management skills through the Gamekeeping Course at North Highland College.

  • Encourage some heather moorland to revert to birch-dominated woodland.

  • Retain flocks of regularly dipped sheep on some moors to help control the tick population.

  • Raise awareness of the importance of raptor species in heather moorland.

  • Encourage moorland managers to agree management plans, incorporating a burning plan, such as those agreed through the Peatland Management Scheme.

Hills

Habitats and species
Caithness is famous for its wide, open landscapes and lack of hills. Morven, the highest hill, is only 706 metres or 2,300 feet above sea level.


Maiden Pap and Morven from Braemore

However, the wind exposure and low summer temperatures make these hills alpine habitats in the UK context. There is also a range of rock types, which leads to a greater diversity of flora including alpine bearberry, alpine saxifrage and cloudberry.

Morven is conglomerate rock with scree, and has alpine bearberry and alpine saxifrage, as well as the scarce rock whitlow-grass. Scaraben is a quartzite hill with little soil and an impoverished flora. Smean is a craggy sandstone hill with crevices of richer minerals bearing green spleenwort and Wilsonís filmy fern.

Ptarmigan and ring ouzel can be found here, as well as mountain hare and large heath butterfly.


Ptarmigan
 

Main issues

The special alpine plants are unusually vulnerable to climate change, as they are located on small hills close to sea level.

There are very few real montane areas in Caithness, and considerations on future proposals such as wind farm developments should consider the implications on local
biodiversity.

Morven and Scaraben are popular hills for recreation, and this may be a contributory factor to why birds such as golden eagle do not nest there.

 

Opportunities for action

  • Monitor the breeding success of golden eagle populations.

  • Raise awareness of the plantlife and birdlife on Caithnessí hills amongst locals and visitors to the area.

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