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Newsletter - 20 October 2005

Caithness Biodiversity Index

Nature & Environment Index

20 October 2005

Biodiversity is one of the ‘buzz’ words that seems to pop up all the time these days. It simply means the "variety of life on earth”. This includes all living things, from the tiny garden ant to the giant redwood tree. You will find biodiversity everywhere, in window boxes and wild woods, in roadsides and rain forests, on seashores and snow fields. The concept is a relatively new perspective on the natural world and how we as humans relate to it, which has developed over the last couple of decades.

In 1992 the UK was a signatory to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity at the Earth Summit in Rio. This committed the signing countries to conserving the earth's biodiversity, but to do so in the context of sustainable development and the needs of local communities. It argues the natural world is a precious asset, and we are encouraged both to maintain it for the long-term and to realise and equitably share its benefits.

In Caithness, efforts have been made to work towards this goal. Education is an important tool as many people are unaware of the wonderful array Biodiversity surrounding them on a day to day bases. With such a range of different habitats and healthy environments, the existing biodiversity in Caithness is already rich and so we wish to sustain this and try to encourage and protect this precious asset for future generations to enjoy.

The Caithness ‘Biodiversity’ project has been running since 2002 and has seen some good projects come to fruition. The Caithness Biodiversity Plan summarised priority species and habitats in the county and is the working document which future strategy for future biodiversity work in the county will be based.

Over the last few years a range of projects have been undertaken to raise awareness of local biodiversity. These projects included ‘Know Yours Own Patch’ awareness-raising projects, Community-led practical projects, training days, leaflet production, Caithness Biodiversity calendar and posters and the Caithness Biodiversity Photo Collection.

The project also part funded a coastal viewpoint facility at Swineyhill, Lybster. This project involved a wide section of the community by including primary school children, high school children and local residence in the production of the design of the project. A high sided flagstone bench offers some protection against the elements whilst encouraging people to sit and enjoy the coastal scenery. Lybster Primary school children designed images of wildlife to be seen in the area. These images are sandblasted onto the flagstone.

An interpretive panel offers hints about Seawatching and points out the most likely encounters species ranging from cetaceans to seabirds.  See Sea Bird City for sea birds you might see around the Caithness coast

In an attempt to keep the momentum going and getting projects up and running, the Caithness Biodiversity Group have formed. With funding of £10,000 from Leader+ and Scottish Natural Heritage, the group is currently taking a small number of projects forward. This group comprises of community representatives and local staff from relevant agencies; all with a common interest in Biodiversity and belief it is an important asset which should be supported and encouraged at local and national levels.

At present an exciting mix of projects are underway in the county.

1. Northern Water Vole Survey
Although Caithness is thought to have a healthy population of water voles, further south the animal is threatened, due to predation by mink and habitat loss/fragmentation. The population has severely decline in numbers since the 1920’s. Despite isolated sightings, mink are not believed to be established in the county and so Caithness may represent one of the few vital strong hold for the species in Britain. In order to establish base line figures, a survey to map the distribution of water voles has recently been completed. Two students from Aberdeen University were funded to conduct the survey and to help organise an information day to train up volunteers to continue with the survey in future years. The collected information will help to produce a strategy safe guarding the population and make the future of the water vole more certain.

2. Habitat Enhancement Projects
a. Barn Owl Boxes
This project aims to build and erect 4 barn owl boxes. The sites will be mapped and monitored.
Barn owls are not common in Caithness although seem to be increasing in numbers. They often use barns, out buildings & tree holes to nest. They can be prone to disturbance and so will nest only in peaceful places.

b. Small blue butterfly habitat enhancement
The most northerly colony of small blue butterflies is located within the dune system at Dunnet bay. There is some erosion of the site causing a loss of the food plant kidney vetch. It is proposed that the plants are increased by purchasing plugs and planting into the ground to increase cover within the dunes.  Another small colony was also discovered and as this is in shale it is proposed that plants are also put in here to extend the quantity of kidney vetch to strengthen the habitat.

c. John O Groats Mill Dam
This project aims to restore a wetland habitat by plugging a leak in the lower section of the dam wall. This will raise the water level and benefit waders, ducks, swans as well as trout, frogs and toads. A significant number and variety of birds have been seen on the dam. Water voles have been seen in the inflowing burn. The dam has been a water feature since 1818. A public road runs alongside the dam and the area is used by walkers.  John O'Groats Mill (No Pictures of the dam)

d. Osprey Poles
Ospreys returned to the Highlands in 1955 and are slowly re-colonising the region. They visit Caithness breeding during the summer months and are normally associated with water. Ospreys are slowly colonising the county but provision of a few more suitable nest sites would help as there are plenty of fish lochs. This awareness raising project will involve school visits and building mock platforms with children. Two actual sites will be built for the birds to use.

e. Sand Martin Barrels
Sand martins fly from Africa each summer to nest in sand banks & gravel pits in Caithness. These habitats are particularly vulnerable to erosion and whole colonies can be wiped out. This project will build nesting barrels to provide nesting sites.

The group plan to target other sources of funding to take forward further Biodiversity projects in the Caithness area. These projects will be a mix of awareness raising projects, practical projects to directly benefit biodiversity and also projects which will potentially have spin off effects for tourism in the area.

Anyone with an interest in Biodiversity should check out the dedicated webpage on www.highlandbiodiversity.com/  If you have an interest in the local Biodiversity group, please contact Barbara Bremner at Barbara.bremner@snh.gov.uk

Marina Swanson, HC East Caithness Ranger

Biodiversity Photo Collection
Caithness Biodiversity Plan
Sutherland Biodiversity Plan