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Fire At Protected Area Gives SNH and Police Cause For Concern

1st June 2009

Photograph of Fire At Protected Area Gives SNH and Police Cause For Concern

Significant fire damage has been caused to Dunnet Head, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) due to its cliff habitat and nesting seabirds, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) can now confirm. The fire burnt for several days in mid April 2009.

SNH staff have visited the site and determined the fire resulted in damage to more than a quarter of the SSSI. Maritime heath and cliff top habitats have been badly damaged in the April blaze. These are slow-growing habitats which are found in a limited area along the cliff tops. The habitats support unusual plants such as spring squill and Scottish primrose.

A stretch of around five kilometres of the west coast of Dunnet Head from just south of The Neback in the north to Rowrash in the south was burned. The area of cliff top affected is reckoned to be 750 hectares.

It is uncertain how long the habitat will take to recover as it depends on the intensity and severity of the blaze. Substantial stretches have been burnt to the cliff edge. At an exposed coastal site like Dunnet Head, erosion as a result of the fire could result in the permanent loss of vegetation in some areas.

Lesley Cranna, SNH North Highland Area manager, said: "We are extremely concerned by the extent of the fire at Dunnet Head, particularly the damage caused to the Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

"It seems that a fire near to the SSSI got out of control. If the Muirburn Code had been followed, this should not have happened. The coastal vegetation along the cliffs is of national importance and we estimate that around 27% of the habitat has been significantly damaged by this fire. It may take many years to recover, particularly given the exposed nature of the headland."

PC Cailean Macleod, Northern Constabulary's Wildlife Crime Officer for the area, added: "The police inquiry is ongoing and Northern Constabulary would welcome any further information from members of the public.

"They can pass any information on anonymously via Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111 or contact Thurso police station on 01847 893 222."

Dunnet Head SSSI is a part of the North Caithness Cliffs Special Protection Area (SPA) which contains a part of one of the largest seabird colonies in the area.

Nesting species include kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, puffins, fulmars, shags, cormorants and gulls. The effect on seabirds at the site is still being assessed. Cliff erosion due to the fire may in turn affect nesting birds.

More photos at http://www.caithness.org/fpb/2009/april/gallery.php?gallery=8

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