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A Draft Framework for Biodiversity in Highland



13.1   Water is a key feature of the Highland landscape, with distinctive wildlife and very obvious social and economic uses. Freshwaters are also important for recreation and sport. They are also uniquely dependent on the management of other adjacent habitats in their catchments for their quality. which is of course why catchments are so important.


The biodiversity resource: key habitats and species in Highland


13.2   Highland has a high density of water bodies and rivers, but the underlying geology is such that they tend to have a naturally low diversity of species.


13.3   Whilst rivers are not themselves categorised as BAP priority habitats, they support a number of priority species and impact directly on other habitats which are priority ones. Where present river shingle and gravel are important features as they support a number of specialised insects. Rivers also support other species such as otters, water voles, salmon, sea trout and fresh water pearl mussels. In some areas there is adjacent wet alder woodland or ash woodland but this is limited in extent. The majority of rivers tend to be fast flowing and bouldery, with no marked flood plains, although the Spey and some of the rivers of Caithness and Sutherland are exceptions. River water quality is good relative to much of Britain in terms of lack of pollution, but the loss of bankside vegetation, impacts of overgrazing and afforestation, and modification for water supply and hydroelectricity give scope for future improvements.


13.4   Fens are peatlands which receive at least some water and nutrients from the soil, rock and ground water. Fens are part of a transition of habitats through time and space, which starts with an area of open water. As this fills in thorough a build up of vegetation and sediment, new plants colonise and different plant communities develop depending on the water depth, including reedbeds, fens, wet woodland and marshy grassland. Fen peatlands are much more limited in extent in Scotland compared with England, and in Highland the majority of sites are very small and therefore tend to get overlooked. The Insh Marshes is an exception, having the largest example of nutrient poor fen in the UK. Fens support diverse communities of plants and animals, including otters and many breeding birds.


13.5   Reedbeds are also much more extensive in England than in Scotland, with the majority of larger reedbed sites being concentrated in south east England. In Highland the Insh Marshes are particularly important, with one of the largest reed beds in Scotland (26 ha) after the Tay reedbeds (410 ha). Reedbeds tend to support a richer diversity of birds and insects in the south of the UK. They are nevertheless important in Highland for a number of birds which are uncommon in either a national or Highland context, notably reed bunting, willow, sedge and grasshopper warblers, and water rail.


13.6   Mesotrophic lakes are those which have a moderate level of nutrients. They have the highest variety of plant species of any lochs and insect and fish diversity is also high. They are relatively uncommon in the UK. Eutrophic standing waters are by contrast those with a naturally high level of nutrients and are more common in lowland southern Britain. Less than 5% of the water bodies in Highland are naturally either mesotrophic or eutrophic, such that any examples are significant. Due to geographical remoteness, there is a reasonable proportion which are less affected by Man’s influence than elsewhere in Britain. 


13.7   The majority of Highland’s lochs are oligotroph ic or nutrient poor. Oligotrophic lochs are not a UK BAP priority habitat, but these lochs are nevertheless worthy of consideration. This is partly because they are so widespread (a “keystone” habitat) and partly because they are so often under threat from catchment impacts. The main threat is changes to their nutrient status.  


13.8   Habitats identified as UK BAP priority habitats which occur in Highland

·        Fens           

·        Reedbeds

·        Eutrophic standing waters

·        Mesotrophic lakes


13.9   UK BAP Priority Species recorded in Highland associated primarily with lochs, rivers and marshes

·        Common scoter, freshwater pearl mussel, otter (lack of info), water vole, great crested newt.

·      Group of river beetles and craneflies associated with river shingle, several craneflies of wet
  woodland and of streamsides, dark bordered beauty moth  (favours damp aspen woodland),
  northern damselfly (favours small pools) and a stonefly found in slow reaches of rivers.

·        River jelly lichen, Scottish small reed, pillwort, long-leaved thread moss, Shetland pondweed.


13.10  Some other species of conservation concern

·        Sea Trout, Atlantic salmon, lampreys (three species).

·        Red and black throated divers, Slavonian grebe, sawbill ducks (research and monitoring needed),


13.11  Key biodiversity objectives for lochs, rivers and marshes

·        To maintain or where possible reinstate near natural patterns of water flow, water exchange,
    sediment movement and deposition, and the structure of river channels and loch basins.

·        To improve and restore freshwater and riparian habitats and the populations of associated species
     on a catchment basis.

·        To improve fisheries in the main rivers and tributaries. 

·        To raise awareness of the intimate relationship between rivers, water bodies, the wildlife they
     support and the ongoing processes in their catchments.


13.12  Trends and issues

·        Water quality generally high, but concerns re impacts of sheep dip, fertilisers, septic tanks,  
    acidification from forestry, overloading of sewerage systems, fish cages.

·        Reduction in productivity of rivers, notably decline in salmon and trout stocks. Affects river
     productivity- dead fish enrich headwaters.

·        Recent increases in riverside vegetation through agriculture and forestry grants. However
    riverside woodland frequently absent and bankside vegetation tightly grazed, reducing organic
   input, increasing sediment input and channel erosion, leading to demand for downstream
   engineering, also silting of fish spawning grounds. High priority issue.

·        Acidification from acid rain a key issue but starting to see upturn in conditions.

·       Water acidification, phosphorous inputs and modified water flow from conifer planting in
   catchments. In recent years increasing native woodland restoration and restructuring of
   commercial plantations to benefit of freshwaters, such that now largely addressed.

·       High levels of grazing, inappropriate muirburn, peatland drainage and poorly designed tracks all
   leading to increased sedimentation. Land management in catchments and the impact of
   agricultural grants a high priority issue.

·        Forthcoming EU Water Framework Directive  (implement by 2010) will have dramatic
    impacts by integrating water management policy and practice, promoting River Basin Management
    Plans. May not be in sufficient detail.

·        Many lochs/ rivers already modified for hydro electric schemes or water supply, continuing
    construction of and proposals for hydro electric schemes. More strategic approach needed.

·        “In –river” engineering works to improve river flow patterns and habitats for the benefits of
     fisheries with mixed impacts. Less than other parts of UK. A moderate priority.

·      Various other engineering works such as bridges and culverts and flood relief works with negative
   impacts. Projected increases in flood frequency due to climate change and increase in hard
   surfacing in catchments likely to increase demand for flood relief works. Flood relief works can
   cause erosion, sedimendation, flooding elsewhere, loss of habitat, reduced recreational access.
   Review of planning needed (GDO Class 20). More demands need to be made of developers.

·      Engineering works can be barriers to fish migration.

·     A need for longer term planning for river engineering and more emphasis on natural solutions.
 Glasgow University been working on this, but not being promoted sufficiently.

·     Water quality/chemistry and biology generally good, but flow regimes highly modified. Directive
 will tackle this on some rivers, but others will be exempt.

·     Water abstraction can be an issue locally, but not a major issue in Highland.

·     Nutrient enrichment not generally an issue. Sometimes an issue on Loch Insh.

·     Expansion of American mink population causing damage to native biodiversity. High priority,
 especially on the west- impact on coastal sea bird colonies, breeding freshwater birds. Less of a
 problem on the east.

·     Proliferation of invasive plant species such as Giant Hogweed, Japanese Knotweed and
 Himalayan Balsam. An issue for Highland Council. Also shading by rhododendrons.

·     Freshwater fish farms may have negative impact on water quality. Expanded in recent decades,
 production of rainbow trout or salmon smolts. Localised nutrient enrichment, spread of parasites
 and escapes all possible.

·     Coastal fish farms have greater impact as many more. Impacts under debate.

·     Some lochs and rivers are stocked with non-native fish, also escapes from fish farms and live bait. Been raised in the Cairngorms, Code of practice for anglers. Not a big issues on the west.

·    Climate change. May result in new disease and parasite problems for fish. Biggest impact will be changes in precipitation and flow regimes. More intense events likely. Scottish Executive sponsored research on this, but cannot quantify. West will be wetter, east will be drier.

·    Freshwaters present largely untapped resource for recreation and enjoyment, with opportunities for awareness raising. Need data on limitations on recreation expansion.

·    Very little knowledge on lamphreys.

·    Accountability and openness of organisations associated with rivers an issue, including Salmon Fishery Boards.

·    Removal of gravel may be an issue in some areas.

·    Key habitats for action are rivers including alluvial habitats.

 13.13  Current mechanisms/ initiatives for promoting biodiversity

·           Groundwater Regulations

·           Control of Pollution Act.

·           FC’s Forest and Water Guidelines

·          Conservation designations, nature reserve management and SSSI management agreements

·         Fishery Trusts- ongoing survey work, management planning and habitat enhancement, including
     AWCFT habitat enhancement project.

·         SERAD/SNH policy statement “Angling for change”.

·         RSS Measures

·         SEPA Habitat Enhancement Initiative.

·         LIFE UK Rivers Project (includes Rivers Borgie, Kerry and Moidart- SACs for Freshwater pearl
     mussel) ongoing, will involve river strategies.

·         Pearl mussel awareness project through Cairngorms Partnership to prevent illegal collection.

·         River Spey Catchment Management Plan being developed through Spey Catchment Steering 

·         LIFE bid for River Conon- unsuccessful but will have project proposals.

·         Cairngorms Rivers Project, a Cairngorms Partnership initiative to develop an integrated strategy.

·         Slavonian Grebe leaflet by RSPB/ SNH, aims to reduce disturbance.

·         FWAG guidelines for wetlands.

·         SEPA Sustainable Urban Drainage System guidance.

·         SWT water vole campaign.


13.14  Policy/ Highland-wide measures required for promoting biodiversity

·         Encourage River Basin Management Plans, catchment flood management strategies and Fishery
    Management Plans. Housing in rural areas likely to be a key issue.

·         Forestry grant development and promotion to support riverside woodland planting and
     management. More incentives may be needed.

·         Encourage good management of fish farms and Area Management Agreements

·         Precautionary approach to siting of fish farms on freshwater lochs, seek to have all fish farming
     activities brought under planning and development control

·         Ensure scientifically valid rationale for permitting predator control of fish eating birds

·         Seek to have river engineering works brought within the full planning process

·         Explore methods of mitigating impacts of regulated water flow

·         Agri-environ measures which encourage reduced input agriculture.


13.15  Potential practical opportunities for enhancing biodiversity and its sustainable use

·         Code of practice for anglers on diver breeding lochs.

·         Develop role of anglers in promoting biodiversity, including visiting anglers.

·         Agreements with some estate owners and angling interests to ensure some rivers and lochs not
     artificially stocked, code of practice for stocking.

·         Promotion of responsible fresh water angling to take pressure off sensitive areas.

·         Promotion of niche markets for angling, developing charr and eel farming. Also general
     promotion of angling in Highland. 

·         American mink control measures.

·         Riverside woodland planting and management.

·         Restoration of riverside vegetation, to provide habitat for water voles, otters, improve fisheries.

·         Pearl mussel awareness project to prevent illegal collection– people need to be convinced that it
     is important. Gillies have knowledge, but lack of reporting. Previously had Operation Necklace.

·         Farm waste collection schemes (exists in Cairngorms)

·         Dragonfly surveys involving wider community.

·         Otter interpretation/ conservation

·         Sponsorship from water users eg distilleries.

·         More use of reed beds for waste water management.

·         “Water of Life” project to raise awareness of rivers, links with other habitats, interconnectedness
      of impacts of people/processes/habitats. Funding for community projects.

 13.16  Opportunities for multi-benefit projects

·           Local initiatives on sub-catchment planning.

·           Restoration of flood plain systems including woodland (some ongoing work Conon). Promote
       use of floodplains for wet grazing and timber production to alleviate need for flood defences.


13.17  Survey/Research information and requirements

·         Research into Slavonian grebe decline.


13.18  Sources of further information

·        Water vole conservation handbook, Rob Strachan, 1998 (published for EN, EA, WCRU.)

         Cairngorms Rivers Project Phase 1 Report, Cairngorms Partnership, 2000