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Highland Bio-diversity

Caithness Draft Index

Biodiversity Index

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Caithness Draft Plan
The Caithness Biodiversity Group  -  October 2002

1. Sea and Coast


Many Caithness people live on or near the coast, and depend on the sea for their livelihood or recreation. Fishing is a primary industry that brings considerable local income, although in some locations there have been difficulties in accommodating all those who want to fish there. It is important that everyone tries to ensure the maintenance of stocks. The Pentland Firth is also an important transport route for freight, and oil exploration and its conveyance brings a continual threat of marine pollution.

There are many difficult issues to be tackled. The oceans are wild areas which we harvest not farm, and the natural environment has a vital role to play in assuring this continued bounty. Although increasing numbers of people are enjoying the marine environment through diving, recreational boating and wildlife boat tours, it remains the most unknown aspect of our environment too easily out of sight and, therefore out of mind.

Caithness has some vast, beautiful and unspoilt stretches of coastline, from the broad, sandy beaches at Dunnet and Reiss to the storm-torn sea cliffs at Duncansby, Dunnet Head and Holburn Head. Unlike much of the rest of the United Kingdom, the Caithness coastline is relatively unmodified, and has a high value not only for biodiversity, but also in terms of landscape, recreation and enjoyment.

Biodiversity Objectives

Objective 1.1 Ensure that all marine and coastal habitats are managed in a way that takes account of all their natural interests (wildlife and plants).

Objective 1.2 Establish safe, non-destructive and unobtrusive access to beaches and other robust coastal areas.

Objective 1.3 Raise general awareness about marine life and coastal habitats.

Objective 1.4 Encourage coastal zone management plans.

Objective 1.5 Tackle the issue of marine and coastal litter.

1.1 The Sea

Habitats & species

The seabed around Caithness is composed mainly of bedrock, sand and gravel. The UK Biodiversity Action Plan classifies this as sublittoral sands and gravels, and the inshore waters of the Moray Firth provide good nursery areas for fish such as sandeels, herring and plaice. There are isolated areas of horse mussel beds around Stroma. In the deeper waters further offshore, deep water mud habitats support many species of crab as well as burrowing shrimp, sea pens and large molluscs.

The Pentland Firth is famous for its tidal rapids, a term used by the UK Biodiversity Group to cover a broad range of high energy environments, including deep tidal streams and tide-swept habitats. With names such as the 'Boars of Duncansby' and the 'Merry Men of Mey', our tidal rapids support characteristic marine communities rich in biodiversity, nourished by food brought on each tide.

Many rare mammals, birds and fish have been sighted or caught in and around Caithness waters. Harbour porpoises, dolphins (including Risso's, bottle-nosed, common, Atlantic white-sided and white-beaked dolphins) and minke and long-finned pilot whales are regularly seen from the shore and boats. Both grey and common seals come close to the shore to feed, rest and raise their pups, and otters can be seen close to river mouths in some of the quieter locations.

Coastal waters are important feeding grounds for breeding seabirds such as puffins, guillemots and razorbills. In winter, the waters around Caithness support coastal populations of long-tailed, goldeneye and eider ducks, and great northern and red throated divers are also regular visitors.

The Pentland Firth and North Sea once offered prime fishing grounds. Common skate, cod, hake, herring, mackerel, plaice, saithe, sole, whiting, monkfish and ling are all caught in inshore waters around Caithness. Occasionally, leatherback turtles have been recorded, having been brought to Scotland on the Gulf Stream Atlantic current.

Habitat: (N: National priority, L: Local priority) Present in Caithness:
Sublittoral sands & gravels (N) Yes
Deep water mud habitats (N) Yes
Maerl beds (N) No
Horse mussel beds (N) Yes (?)
Tidal rapids (N) Yes

Key species dependant on the Sea:
Harbour porpoise European otter Common skate Sole
Dolphin species Long-tailed duck Cod Whiting
Minke whale Goldeneye Hake Monkfish
Long-finned pilot whale Eider duck Herring Ling
Grey seal Great northern diver Mackerel  
Common seal Red-throated diver Plaice  
  Common scoter Saithe  

Main issues

A major challenge in managing inshore waters is to accommodate all those who want to fish there. Many commercially fished species such as herring and cod have undergone population crashes in the last fifty years, and there is a need to manage our remaining fish stocks sustainably.

The Pentland Firth is regarded as one of the most dangerous and unpredictable stretches of water around the UK. It is also a major shipping lane, as well as providing access to an important fishing port. There is a real risk of ships running aground. Oil pipelines cleaned and reassembled at Wester are towed out of Sinclair Bay to their destinations in the North Sea and the North Atlantic.

Less than 20km off the Caithness coast lies the Beatrice oilfield, on an extensive shallow area known as the Smith Bank. This is also an important area for spawning plaice and the site of a scallop fishery.

There are concerns surrounding the damage to the seabed, spawning grounds and bottom dwelling animals caused by inshore trawling, and little is known about recovery rates.

There is a non-quantified danger to mammals and birds of accidental capture and drowning in fishing gear and creel lines. Sewage, marine litter and chemical pollutants also pose a threat to marine life.

Renewable energy development is a future possibility, and the impacts of wave, tidal and wind power will need to be considered through an environmental impact assessment prior to carrying out any works.

The increase in wildlife tourism, with shore-based cetacean watching and boat trips out to Stroma and Duncansby attract many visitors. Assuming codes of conduct such as the Dolphin Space Programme are adhered to, this is thought to have minimal negative impacts on marine life.

The decline in salmon and trout returning to our rivers is a source of concern. Many factors are involved including global warming, off-shore fishing, interactions with farmed salmon and loss of spawning beds, and there are growing pressures from fishermen for legal culls of predators such as seals and fish eating birds.

Current biodiversity projects

Caithness lobster V-notching project

North Highland Whale and Dolphin Trail

Dunnet Bay Ranger Pavilion - interpretation and access to beach

Opportunities for action

Raise awareness of marine life and issues through wildlife tourism including boat trips and shore-based interpretation.

Collect and recycle marine and land-based litter.


1.2 Beaches, dunes & machair
Habitats & species

Caithness has some beautiful and unspoilt beaches. 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.

At the top of some beachs, vegetated shingle sometimes has nationally scarce and declining oyster plant and a rare species of eyebright. Behind the sandy beaches there are dune systems, one of which contains the rare Holy grass. Common and arctic 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.

These 'soft' coastal habitats are dynamic and mobile. They absorb wave energy, reducing sea's erosive impact. 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.

Habitat: (N: National priority, L: Local priority) Present in Caithness:
Beaches (L) Yes
Machair (N) Yes
Coastal saltmarsh (N) Yes
Coastal sand dunes (N) Yes
Coastal vegetated shingle (N) Yes
Mudflats (N) No
Reedbeds (N) No
Saline lagoons (N) No
Seagrass beds (N) No
Sheltered muddy gravels (N) No


Key species dependant on beaches, dunes & machair:
Oystercatcher Sanderling Common tern Small blue butterfly
Ringed plover Turnstone Arctic tern Oyster plant
Dunlin Twite Little tern Eyebright
Purple sandpiper Snow bunting Great yellow bumblebee Holy grass

Main issues

Erosion activities such as sand extraction and recreation (bikes and camp fires) 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. Many local communities regularly organise 'beach clean-ups'.

Current biodiversity projects

Community beach cleans

Opportunities for action

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

Promote the financial benefits associated with improvements in biodiversity, e.g. clean beaches are better for wildlife and attract more tourists.

1.3 Coastal cliffs & heaths

Habitats & species

The Caithness coastline is dominated by tall, impressive cliffs 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 Dunnet Head cliffs are home to the nationally rare Killarney fern.

Rock stacks such as at Duncansby and Holburn Head provide nesting ledges for a variety of bird life. From May to August our cliffs are home to a collection of nesting seabirds including puffins, fulmars, kittiwakes, razorbills, guillemots, black guillemots, cormorants and shags. The cormorant population is declining, the only breeding population left in Caithness is at the Ord.

Some of the best remaining examples of maritime heath in Scotland occur along the north and east Caithness coastline at places such as Sandside Head near Reay and along the east coast from Berriedale up to Wick. The rare Scottish primrose can be found along the cliff tops among close cropped maritime heath as well as in coastal grassland. Several rare or scarce eyebright species also live in short grassland close to the coast.

Habitat: (N: National priority, L: Local priority) Present in Caithness:
Maritime cliff & slope (N, L) Yes
Maritime heath (N) Yes
Key species dependant on coastal cliffs & heaths:
Puffin Guillemot Peregrine falcon Scottish primrose
Fulmar Black guillemot   Eyebright species
Kittiwake Cormorant    
Razorbill Shag    

Main issues

Fly tipping in geos and ditches is a problem in Caithness, and help with the costs of legal disposal is needed.

Loss of coastal heath to agricultural intensification or forestry is less of a threat today, indeed undergrazing is more of an issue as many areas have been fenced off to protect livestock. We should strive to protect and manage the areas we have by ensuring that these areas can be grazed occasionally.

With increasing access to land, disturbance to nesting seabirds and the removal of rare plants is an increasing threat.

Current biodiversity projects

Many farmers have entered into agri-environment schemes to protect coastal grasslands

Lybster Harbour Trust promote paths up from the harbour

Ranger guided walks

Opportunities for action

Encourage more farmers to enter agri-environment schemes

Establish a 'flying flock' on a trial basis to graze areas occasionally / appropriately

Create safe access routes to viewing points that don't disturb birds, such as at Duncansby


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