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Sutherland Biodiversity Plan


The Caithness Biodiversity Action Plan - February 2003

Caithness is a land of open, rolling farmland and moor studded with lochs and dissected by rivers, roads and scattered settlements. Covering an area of approximately 1,800 km2, the county is fringed to the north and east by dramatic coastal scenery and is home to large, internationally important colonies of seabirds. The surrounding waters of the Pentland Firth and the North Sea hold a great diversity of marine life.

Cliffs at dawn, near Latheronwheel

Away from the coast, the landscape is dominated by
open moor and blanket bog, divided up by more fertile farm and croft land along the straths or river valleys. The blanket bogs of Caithness and Sutherland are internationally important, and together make up approximately 4% of the World’s resource of maritime, treeless blanket bogs.  The underlying geology, harsh climate and long history of human occupation have shaped this rich and distinctive natural heritage. Today we see a diverse landscape incorporating both common and rare habitats and species. Caithness provides a stronghold for many species that have undergone serious decline elsewhere in the UK.

Around 370 million years ago, during the Devonian age, Northern Caithness and Orkney were part of a vast freshwater lake, known as Lake Orcadie.  Horizontal beds of siltstone (Caithness flag) and sandstone were laid down under this ancient inland lake, which once extended from Shetland to Inverness-shire and across to Norway. Fish fossils from this time can be found in old quarries such as Achanarras, near Spittal.

The main rock type is old red sandstone, laid down in layers and sculpted by ice and sea to produce some of the most dramatic coastal scenery in the UK. Breeding seabirds such as guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and fulmars have exploited the resulting ledges at locations such as the Stacks of Duncansby and cliffs of Dunnet and Holburn Head.  Flagstones were an important raw material to Caithness folk, and can be seen all over the county as dykes, floors or roofing materials. During the late 1890s to the 1920s, Caithness flagstone was exported all over the world. Old quarries have been reopened in recent years to meet a renewed demand. 

A low-lying, maritime county, Caithness’ climate is characterised by mild winters, cool summers and generally persistent winds. The wetlands and lochs  do not freeze for long spells, and this has been a factor in attracting large numbers of over-wintering wildfowl like greylag geese and wading birds such as dunlin and purple sandpiper.

Human Impact
The earliest settlers in Caithness have been traced back to Mesolithic times. Just after 4,000BC, people started building chambered tombs, stone circles and
round houses. They would have hunted wild animals, grown crops and grazed domestic animals, changing the biodiversity and the landscape to suit their needs.

Through the centuries, Caithness people have developed a strong relationship with the land and surrounding sea. The population has grown to 25,470, and tourism and nuclear power have replaced farming, crofting and fishing as the county’s dominant industries.

Farmland by Loch Scarmclate

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