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The Caithness Biodiversity Action Plan - February 2003
FOREST AND WOODLANDS - Policy woodlands and plantations


Policy woodlands and plantations

Habitats and species

The majority of woodland blocks in Caithness are coniferous plantations, which are generally small in area and regular in outline, and often planted to give shelter to livestock.

Lodgepole pine with Sawfly larva

More extensive woodlands have been planted on some of the peatlands such as those around Altnabreac. On poor upland soils, management, species diversity and structure are limited by the site’s exposure to wind. These plantations are usually dominated by lodgepole pine and sitka spruce. However better soils and more sheltered sites allow larch, Douglas fir and western hemlock to be grown and managed according to a range of silvicultural systems.

Many long established plantations have existing conservation value, but significant opportunities exist for improving biodiversity through restructuring, planting with broadleaves and in some situations, tree removal and reversion to moorland. Young forestry plantations provide an important habitat for short-eared owl and hen harrier, and forest edges are utilised by merlin.

Dunnet Forest provides a prolific and varied woodland fungi habitat, and contains a few nationally uncommon or rare species, listed in Annex 3. The northern latitude, underlying mineral soil, predominantly exotic conifers and presence of much fallen timber are all-important factors in their presence.

Scarlet waxcap

Changes in the woodland grant regime in the late 1980s have encouraged the establishment of new native woodlands, which now account for the majority of new woodlands in the Highlands. These woodlands will produce little if any timber, but are expected to develop considerable value for biodiversity, amenity and recreation in the future.

Policy woodlands such as those at Achvarasdal, Thrumster, Latheronwheel and Langwell are typically small plantings, often from the 19th Century, associated with large houses and fertile, sheltered sites. Characterised by a wide range of exotic species such as beech and sycamore, they may demonstrate a complex and stable structure, with high proportions of old trees and dead wood, and often have very high recreation and amenity value.

Lowland wood pasture and parkland is a national priority habitat associated with a number of important invertebrate and lichen species. Although this habitat is limited in Caithness, areas with old avenues, field boundary trees and long established shelterbelts can provide similar conditions as large open grown trees. Urban and garden woods and trees, whilst of limited size, can provide habitats for a range of woodland creatures.

Buzzard on pine

Habitat Map

Main issues

  • Many of Caithness policy woodlands and plantations are suffering from a lack of management. Low timber prices, distance from markets and the lack of infrastructure means that many plantations are not commercially harvestable.

  • Greater biodiversity and amenity benefits can be had from the restructuring of conifer plantations, and there is further scope for the development of transitional habitats such as woodland edges and riparian boundaries.

  • Alternative silvicultural systems such as restructuring plantations in a way that provides continuous cover of different age structures (where conditions allow) will maximise structural diversity.

  • There is scope for the introduction and management of appropriate ground flora, especially in new native woods.

  • There is rarely any scope for natural expansion of policy woodlands, and some examples are overrun with salmonberry and rhododendron.

  • Small-scale crofter forestry and amenity woodland projects often require enhanced support and encouragement.

Fly agaric

Current biodiversity projects

Community woodlands at Achvarasdal, Castletown and Dunnet are setting local management priorities and new, well-designed community woodlands have been planted on the outskirts of Wick, Castletown and Reay.

The Forestry Commission provides grants for works within non-native woods and forests. The grants are designed to improve the environmental value through work related to Biodiversity Action Plans and designated sites, or the conservation of species listed in the schedules of the Wildlife and Countryside Act or the EU Habitats and Species Directive and the EU Birds Directive.

Some farmers have planted amenity woodlands under agri-environment or woodland grant schemes.


Opportunities for action
  • Establish and expand new native or mixed multi-benefit woodlands throughout the county, where site conditions allow. 

  • Restructure existing plantations and policy woodlands to improve biodiversity, both on the woodland edge and internally.

  • Erect nest boxes for long-eared owls and barn owls.

  • Identify potential osprey sites following recent successes and ‘groom’ trees for potential breeding pairs.

  • Raise awareness of the biodiversity of policy and community woodlands through community events, walks and interpretative materials.

  • Establish new habitat and species trails through plantation woodland, to improve access and raise awareness of biodiversity within forests.

  • Investigate and trial the options for biomass technology locally, to use some of the less economic forestry products in energy generation and improve the biodiversity of plantation woodland sites.

  • Investigate the biodiversity benefits of planting and coppicing fast growing species such as willow.

  • Establish a pilot project on adjacent farmland to
    control hooded crow species associated with woodlands, particularly to protect ground-nesting birds.

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