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Highland Bio-diversity

Caithness Draft Index

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Caithness Draft Plan
The Caithness Biodiversity Group  -  October 2002

4. Forest & Woodland


Forests and woodlands are important features of the landscape, representing a key financial asset, a source of employment and a community resource. People in Caithness, a county with little native woodland cover, particularly value their semi-natural and planted woodlands. The location and condition of our woodlands has been shaped by both environmental factors such as climate, soil type and browsing pressure, and by past and present management regimes.

The use of forests and woodlands for recreation has increased, and many communities now seek to play a greater part in their management and even take on ownership. Over the last decade more and more forests and woodlands have come to be managed for a range of complementary uses. There has been a particularly noteworthy turn around in the management of both large areas of planted forests and native woodlands to favour biodiversity.

The long-term survival of woodlands in Caithness is dependant on the continuing delivery of this range of benefits, and the challenge to woodland managers is to balance the needs of recreation, local employment and habitat provision for wildlife.

Biodiversity Objectives

Objective 4.1 Create new native woodlands, including species such as birch, willow, rowan, alder and aspen.

Objective 4.2 Control deer and rabbits to encourage the natural regeneration of semi-natural woodland from existing seed sources.

Objective 4.3 Encourage the planting and expansion of riparian woodland along the banks of rivers, streams and lochs.

Objective 4.4 Develop links and corridors between existing areas of semi-natural woodland to strengthen the forest habitat network for a number of woodland species.

Objective 4.5 Control pest species including foxes and crows at woodland edges, particularly when close to wetland and peatland sites.

4.1 Semi-natural woodland

Habitats & species

Semi-natural woodlands are rare in Caithness, limited to small pockets along the straths and stream edges such as at Berriedale, Dunbeath and Dirlot Gorge. They are remnants of once extensive native forests that existed throughout the area, and form a valuable refuge for our woodland flora and fauna.

The main type of semi-natural woodland in Caithness is birch woodland. Dominated by downy birch mixed with rowan, hazel and aspen, the trees are typically small and the canopy open. Aspen is a species of particular biodiversity importance and little is known of its extent in Caithness. Woodland plants include wood anemone, wood spurge, lords and ladies, herb Robert, dog rose and burnet rose. Birch dominated woodland is particularly important for invertebrates, and roe deer, yellowhammer, greenfinch, tawny owl, sparrowhawk, kestrel, buzzard and raven can all be seen here. On summer evenings, pipistrelle bats leave their roosts in the trees to hunt for insects along the waters edge.

Wet woodlands are restricted to small areas of bog woodlands on the edges of blanket bog, and riparian woodlands along the banks of rivers, streams and lochs, although the latter tends to be free draining. As well as supporting a number of specialised insects and other wildlife, wet woods also help stabilise banks and provide key nutrients to adjacent rivers through runoff and leaf litter. The loss of riparian woodland is thought to be a key issue in the decline of game fisheries.

Habitat: (N: National priority, L: Local priority) Present in Caithness:
Native pine woodland (N) No
Upland mixed ash woodland (N) No
Upland oak woodland (N) No
Wet woodland (N) Yes
Upland birch (N) No
Birch woodland (L) Yes
Key species dependant on semi-natural woodland:
Tree pipit      
Wood warbler      

Main issues

The majority of semi-natural woodlands are isolated and in poor condition through logging for firewood, inappropriate heather burning and heavy grazing by deer, rabbits and domestic stock.

Woodland regeneration is constrained by the need for stock or deer fencing, although some restoration and expansion has occurred through fencing or planting programmes in the last 10-15 years. Bird strikes are less of an issue than further south, but fences create an unnatural woodland edge and structure. Reduction in grazing pressure by more effective deer control and shepherding is an alternative.

Riparian woodlands present a great opportunity to help stabilise river and stream banks, and to give cover and a food source to fish. However, the length of boundary fences required means that establishment costs are higher than in other woodland schemes.

Accidental or deliberate killing of protected species such as wildcat and birds of prey is an issue. Wildcats are interbreeding with feral domestic cats.

Cutting of firewood and removal of deadwood is a threat, as deadwood provides an important habitat for many species of insects and beetles.

Introduced species such as sycamore and rhododendron present a threat to semi-natural woodlands if allowed to spread uncontrollably.

Woodlands harbour predators such as foxes and crows, which prey on moorland birds and young lambs. With fewer gamekeepers employed today than in the past, there has been a reduction in the control of these pest species.

Current biodiversity projects

Dunbeath Strath archaeological leaflet

Opportunities for action

· Develop links between existing areas of semi-natural woodland, particularly along water courses, by fencing and reducing grazing pressure.

· Encourage coppicing of fast-growing species such as willow.

4.2 Policy woodlands & plantations

Habitats & 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. More extensive woodlands have been planted on some of the peatlands around Loch More and Shurrery Estate. On poor upland soils, management, species diversity and structure are limited by the site’s exposure to wind. These plantations are usually dominated by sitka spruce and lodgepole pine. 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 the table below. The underlying mineral soil, northern latitude, predominantly exotic conifers and presence of much fallen timber are all important factors in their presence.

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 and Thrumster are typically small plantings, often from the 19th Century, associated with large houses and fertile, sheltered sites. Characterised by a wide range of exotic broadleaf and conifer species such as beech, sycamore, monkey puzzle and wellingtonia, 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, and areas where old avenues, field boundary trees and old shelterbelts provide the same conditions as large open grown trees. Similarly, urban and garden woods and trees, whilst of limited size, can provide important habitats for a range of woodland creatures.

Habitat: (N: National priority, L: Local priority) Present in Caithness:
Lowland wood pasture and parkland (N) Yes
Policy woodland (L) Yes
Plantation woodland (L) Yes

Key species dependant on policy woodlands & plantations:
Short-eared owl (young plantations) Suillus flavidus  
Hen harrier (young plantations) Strobilurus stephanocytis  
Merlin (edges of mature plantations) Skeletocutis amorphus  

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.

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

Greater biodiversity and amenity benefits can be had from 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 are now more opportunities for crofter forestry and amenity woodlands through the ‘new native woodland’ grant scheme, although small scale woodland projects require enhanced support and encouragement.

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

Some forest plantations on deep peat have reached the end of their first rotation, and are being restructured or clear felled and the ground restored to peatland habitats through initiatives such as the LIFE Peatlands Project.

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

Current biodiversity projects

Achvarasdale Woodland

Dunnet Forest

Life Peatlands Project

Newton Hill Community Woodland

Amenity planting under agri-environmental schemes

Opportunities for action

· Establish and expand new native woodlands throughout the county, where site conditions allow.

· Restructure existing plantations to improve biodiversity, both on the woodland edge and internally.

· Control the spread of invasive species such as rhododendron.

· Investigate and trial the options for biomass technology locally, to use some of the less economic forestry products in energy generation.

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


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