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The Caithness Biodiversity Action Plan - February 2003
SEA AND COAST - Beaches, dunes and machair


Beaches, dunes and machair

Habitats and species

Caithness has some beautiful and unspoilt beaches. At high tide, the Caithness coastline stretches along 273.5km.

During migration and winter, large flocks of wading birds such as oystercatcher, ringed plover, redshank, sanderling and dunlin can be seen feeding at low tide. Other shore birds like turnstone and purple sandpiper can also be seen looking for invertebrates among stones and exposed seaweed.

Dunnet Bay

At the top of some beaches, vegetated shingle sometimes holds the nationally scarce and declining oyster plant and a rare species of eyebright.

Behind the beaches there are coastal sand dune systems, one of which contains the rare Holy grass.  The dunes at Dunnet Bay support the most northerly colony of small blue butterfly, which feeds on kidney vetch. Common, arctic and little terns inhabit some of the quieter coastal locations.

Coastal grasslands and machair (Gaelic for low lying fertile plains covered in species-rich grassland) occur at Dunnet Links, Sandside Bay, and in small pockets elsewhere around the county.  They provide important habitats for a range of plant species including Scottish primrose, and the great yellow bumblebee and small blue butterfly.

Small blue butterfly

Caithness also has small areas of coastal saltmarsh, another nationally important habitat.

These ‘soft’ coastal habitats are dynamic and mobile.  They absorb wave energy, which helps reduce coastal erosion. If the sand is removed or the covering vegetation damaged, the buffering effect of the dune system may be lost, exposing the land behind to the forces of the sea.

Main issues
Erosion activities such as sand extraction and recreation (e.g. bikes and campfires) are the main threat to the beach, dune and machair habitats.

Climate change is likely to increase both storm intensity and frequency, leading to coastal erosion. There may be an increased pressure to improve coastal defences, particularly in the main settlements.

Machair habitats are easily damaged and slow to repair. Both over and under-grazing are potentially damaging, and care should be taken to avoid erosion from poaching or trampling.

As well as being an eyesore, litter is a hazard to coastal and marine life. Plastic bags, containers and discarded fishing line and nets are particularly harmful as they are not biodegradable. Although there are numerous voluntary beach cleans, the scale of the problem is greater than volunteers can feasibly tackle and the impact they have is limited.

The colony of small blue butterfly at Dunnet Bay is very vulnerable due to isolation, and damage to the dune system may adversely affect this species.

Current biodiversity projects

A programme of dune stabilisation at Dunnet Bay started in the 1950s, and continues through the Council Ranger Service.

Beach Clean

The Dunnet Bay Initiative, Wick High School Biology Department and the Caithness Countryside Volunteers carry out regular beach cleans, and a number of individuals and community groups also help tidy up their local beaches.

The Ranger Service and local businesses such as Halliburton Subsea manage coastal access to avoid disturbance to areas with breeding terns.

The Ranger Service, Caithness Field Club and organisations such as Scottish Natural Heritage carry out regular monitoring and surveys of rare coastal species including the small blue butterfly, great yellow bumblebee and Scottish primrose.

Opportunities for action
  • Reduce the coastal litter problem by working with fishermen and other boat users, installing bins and skips at harbours and helping beach cleans.

  • Raise awareness of machair plants and problems associated with dune and machair erosion, specifically targeting user groups such as quad bikes.

  • Manage access to reduce potential conflicts with wildlife, e.g. encourage people to keep dogs on leads in areas where terns are breeding.

  • Raise public awareness by encouraging responsible wildlife tourism and displaying interpretative boards at key areas.

  • Investigate why some coastal plants are not seeding as successfully, and undertake trial seeding from local sources of plants such as Scottish primrose, oyster plant and kidney vetch.

1.3 Coastal cliffs and heaths
Habitats and species
The Caithness coastline is dominated by tall,
impressive maritime cliffs and slopes dissected by
stony bays and geos (deep incisions at right angles
to the cliffs where the sea has excavated along the
line of a fault). The cliffs at Dunnet Head are home
to the nationally rare Killarney fern.
Black guillemot

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