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Highland Bio-diversity

Caithness Draft Index

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Caithness Draft Plan
The Caithness Biodiversity Group  -  October 2002

5. Bog, Moor & Hill


The Caithness landscape is characteristically flat, dominated by wide open skies and long views towards hills such as Morven and Scaraben to the south, Ben Dorrery and Ben Freiceadain to the west and Hoy, on Orkney to the north.

Together with Sutherland, Caithness is internationally renowned for its vast expanses of blanket bog. The two counties hold the largest and most intact areas of this habitat in Scotland, some 4,000km2. The bogs provide an important sink for both carbon and water.

There are also drier areas of peatland that provide heather moor, which is used primarily for sporting, including deer stalking and, to a lesser extent, grouse shooting. Fishing for salmon or trout takes place in scattered rivers and lochs. Sheep are grazed and peats cut on the edges of the moors.

Biodiversity Objectives

Objective 5.1 Avoid any further drainage of blanket bog habitats, and encourage projects that block existing peatland drains.

Objective 5.2 Ensure that fires are well managed and kept under control, adhering to the agreed muirburning code of practice.

Objective 5.3 Ensure grazing is kept to an appropriate level by the retention of stalkers to manage the deer population.

Objective 5.4 Encourage sheep onto some areas of moorland through shepherding, to help control high numbers of ticks.

Objective 5.5 Encourage the natural regeneration and planting where appropriate of native broadleaves on some areas of heather moorland.

5.1 Blanket bog

Habitats & species

Caithness' blanket bogs have developed in an undisturbed way for 4,000 years. Although the annual rainfall is not particularly high (around 1,000 mm per year) the ground can become waterlogged due to its flatness and the low evaporation rate in the cloudy, cool summers. This makes Caithness ideal for the growth of new peat, formed by the death of mosses and sedges and their preservation as they sink into the airless brown water. The peat has accumulated into thick spongy blankets that retain the water and perpetuate the conditions for further peat development.

The plants that live on the permanently wet peat are special to this habitat, and the dominant plants include the sphagnum mosses, the cotton grasses, cross-leaved heath and bog asphodel. A rich and varied invertebrate fauna provides a food source for some specialised bird species including common scoter, greenshank, dunlin and wood sandpiper. The birds get some protection from predators due to the softness of the ground and lack of cover and nesting sites.

The Knockfin Heights, in the south west of the county, is a notable area of very wet peat and pools or dubh lochans, at a height of 400 metres above sea level.

Habitat: (N: National priority, L: Local priority) Present in Caithness:
Blanket bog (N, L) Yes
Lowland raised bog (N) No

Key species dependant on blanket bog:
Red-throated diver Golden plover Greylag goose Merlin
Black-throated diver Greenshank Short-eared owl Peregrine falcon
Wigeon Dunlin Golden eagle  
Common scoter Wood sandpiper Hen harrier  

Main issues

Much of the blanket bog has been drained by cutting channels around its edge. When the peat dries out it cannot be re-wet and the habitat is destroyed. Techniques for blocking drains have been developed and bogs can now be put back into peat-growing mode.

Muirburning, sheep and red deer grazing, and domestic peat cutting have modified much of the peatland habitat and contributed to the landscape pattern we see today. However, uncontrolled burning, overgrazing and the expansion of commercial peat cutting pose threats to the habitat.

Some bogs have been damaged by planting conifer trees, with their associated plough furrows. The ground is unsuitable for tree growth and recently trees have been removed and the furrows blocked up to restore the water-holding capacity of the bogs.

Crows and foxes are damaging to the bird populations, and their numbers have increased with the spread of plantation forestry across the peatlands in the 1970s and 1980s.

Human visitors are a source of damage. A footstep can take several years to grow out.

Current biodiversity projects

Scottish Natural Heritage Peatland Management Scheme (Natural Care Scheme)

Life Peatlands Project

Royal Society for the Protection of Birds management over extensive peatland

Forsinard peat bog trail (in neighbouring Sutherland)

Opportunities for action

Block peatland drains and plough furrows, and remove inappropriately planted conifers in important blanket bog areas.

Control foxes and crows in key breeding bird sites.

Raise awareness of this habitat through controlled access to sites such as the peat bog trail at Forsinard.

5.2 Heather moor

Habitats & 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, the heather moor 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 lady's 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.

For the past 120 years the heather moor 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.

Habitat: (N: National priority, L: Local priority) Present in Caithness:
Limestone pavements (N) No
Lowland heathland (N) (See Section 3.3) Yes
Upland calcareous grasslands (N) (see Section 5.1) Yes
Upland heathland (N) Yes

Key species dependant on heather moor:
Red-throated diver Golden plover Merlin Creeping lady's tresses
Black-throated diver Short-eared owl Peregrine falcon  
Wigeon Hen harrier Red grouse  

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 continuation 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 indigestable plants such as tussock grass and purple moor grass, at the expense of heather moorland. This overgrazing also exacerbates localised wind erosion and run-off.

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.

Birds 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.

Current biodiversity projects

Peatland Management Scheme

Opportunities for action

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

Support heather moorland management by supporting jobs such as stalkers and keepers.

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

5.3 Hills

Habitats & species

The Caithness hills are not high (up to 706 metres or 2,300 feet above sea level) but the wind exposure and low summer temperatures make them alpine habitats in the United Kingdom context. There is also a diversity of rock types, which leads to a greater diversity of flora.

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 Wilson's filmy fern.

Habitat: (N: National priority, L: Local priority) Present in Caithness:
Upland calcareous grasslands (N) (see Section 5.1) Yes
Upland heathland (N) Yes

Key species dependant on the hills:
Alpine bearberry Green spleenwort Ptarmigan  
Alpine saxifrage Wilson's filmy fern Ring ousel  
Rock whitlow-grass      

Main issues

The plants on Morven are threatened by the natural processes of erosion of the rocky outcrops (which are very unstable).

Morven and Scaraben are popular hills for recreation and are frequently visited and disturbed. This ensures that birds such as golden eagle do not reside there. Other hills nearby are much less visited.

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

Current biodiversity projects

Opportunities for action

Raise awareness of the plantlife and birdlife on Caithness' hills amongst locals and visitors to the

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