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Dunnet Links National Nature Reserve
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Dunnet Bay, with its sweeping sands backed by dunes, provides a wealth of interest for those who enjoy beautiful scenery and wildlife. The sands stretch for two miles south of the old red sandstone cliffs of Dunnet head, Scotland's most northerly point. Behind them lies a high ridge of dunes, with areas of active sand movement between the more stable marram covered ridges. Inland from this, blown sand has formed a machair-like area which constitutes part of the Dunnet Links National Nature Reserve.

 

The seashore, links and cliffs each provide habitats for a wide variety of flowering plants. On a summer walk along the sands you can find the fleshy leafed sea rocket and sea sandwort, whilst on the rock platform and cliffs the hardy thrift, scurvy grass and sea plantain cling to the rocks.

flower1.jpg (7557 bytes) In the open areas of Dunnet Forest and beside the pathways, there are lime loving plants alongside the wetland plants of the ditches. Several orchids grow here as well as the medicinal plants eyebright and speedwell. Even the tiny, rare Primula scotica can be found here. Marsh marigold, watercress and mint brighten up the ditches. In all, the Reserve boasts over 230 plant species.

Butterflies, including meadow brown, common blue and dark green fritillary, add more colour to the forest rides.

Dunnet Head has more to offer, with spring squill tinging the coastal heaths blue in the early summer and heath spotted orchids trooping along the roadsides.

Those who are out and about at dawn or dusk may be rewarded by seeing some of our more secretive mammals. Caithness has a good population of otters and although they are fairly secretive you may see one fishing amongst the kelp in the rocky bays. You are more likely to find their fishy spraint marks (droppings) on some of the raised stones or turfs along the streams banks. Spraints are a means of communication between otters. otter.jpg (5212 bytes)

Other animals to look out for are the shy roe deer browsing in the forest or dunes, the fox, or the weasel dashing across the road. The larger stoat, with its black tipped tail, hunts along the shores. If you come across one it may linger awhile and dodge behind boulders to watch you.

There is much to look for out at sea. Whilst watching the gulls wheel about in the bay, you may glimpse dorsal fins criss crossing each other. They belong to common porpoises often seen following the fish in the summer months. Other whales and dolphins pass through, some of them putting on spectacular displays.

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Both common and grey seals are found in these waters. The are best seen on the rock platforms where they haul out in groups. Gills and Brough Bays are probably the best view-points. Please try not to disturb them if you are taking photographs.

On a smaller scale, a scavenge along the beaches can tell much of life at sea. There is a great variety of shells from the tiny Groatie Buckie, regarded as lucky in Caithness, to the larger otter shell. Sea potatoes, urchins and mermaids’ purses are also brought in by the tide.

For further information on the wildlife of the area visit the Rangers at the Visitors Centre upstairs in the building near the caravan site.

The Visitor Centre and Nature Reserve are off the A836 Thurso to John O’Groats road, about thirty minutes drive from Thurso.

 

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