The far northern counties of Scotland, Caithness and Sutherland, are not only host to the great outdoors, cycling, coasteering, horse riding and walking, but have a wealth of exotic flora and fauna. Climate change was responsible for the development of the plantlife in Caithness and Sutherland after the Ice Age over 11,000 years ago. As the Gulf Stream dominated and environmental conditions changed from ice to wet and warm, herbaceous plants such as grasses and sedges became prevalent.
The Flow Country around Forsinard is the largest expanse of blanket bogs in the Europe, with smaller bogs at locations such as Dunnet Head. The former is a proposed World Heritage Site and is full of plants and peat. Dunnet Head is at 58 degrees north, further north than Moscow and has its own microclimate, encouraging environmental conditions for rare plants usually only found in Scandanavia. Shrubs such as heather, dwarf birch and juniper sprang up and eventually, about 8,000 years ago, birch scrubland was replaced by mixed woodland of birch, hazel, pine and oak. (Source: “Moray and Caithness : A Landscape fashioned by Geology”– Clive Auton, Jon Merrett and Kathryn Goodenough”).
Delicate sundew and primula scotia which are found in Dunnet Forest are form flashes of yellow and purple in the bleak landscape.
Primula Scoticad trees in the forest, planted by SNH in the 1950s form a great place to walk out of the wind and rain. There are designated cycle and horse riding tracks as well. On Dunnet Head, broad cliff ledges support ungrazed grassland with tall herbs such as lovage and rose-root. In sheltered locations there are patches of aspen and willow scrub with ferns. On the cliff top there are patches of species-rich maritime heath with spring squill and the primula scotica. The latter is a species that only occurs in the coastal areas of Caithness, Sutherland and Orkney, and nowhere else in the world.The plant communities which grow on Dunnet Head are specially adapted to growing in extreme conditions, in particular the salt-laden winds which howl in from the north. Inland on Dunnet Head, arctic-alpine plants can be found. These plants are more usually found on the tops of mountains in Scotland where the conditions are actually quite similar despite the great difference in altitude. There is generally a shortage of water in addition to a windy climate and the plants adapt in the same way. They have a low growth form which keeps them out of the ferocious winds which sweep in from the north and across the turbulent Pentland Firth. They tend to have thick, fleshy or leathery leaves which reduce their water loss. Juniper, bog cotton, heather, gorse – carpets of green, white, purple and yellow form a patchwork of colour on the moors.
The wildness of A’Mhoine in Sutherland close to Tongue, currently under threat from the proposed development of a space hub. The wilderness of Loch More, accessible from the train at Achvarasdal, gives you the opportunity of seeing a planned forest full of herbs and Scots Pine. It is an easy walk along forest tracks down through the site to the village of Halkirk alongside the River Thurso and from there to Thurso itself, to the coast and on the North Highland Way. Maryam grass at Dunnet Bay, known as the “Links” as a golf course was planned there once upon a time. All are blessed with exotic fauna and fauna. It is a biologists dream. The Caithness Field Club have written many booklets about the flora and fauna of Scotland