North Sutherland is in the far north of the UK, nestled up against the North Atlantic Ocean. It contains some of the most spectacular scenery in Europe and within this exceptional landscape is a wonderful array of natural history.
The landscape is shaped by the rocks here, which are special and fascinating in their own right. They include the oldest rocks to be found anywhere in Europe (Lewisian Gneiss) 3 billion years old. The area is known as the “Cradle of Geology” because geological thrust structures (Moine Thrust) were first discovered here by Victorian geologists, proving that older rocks could be pushed up and over younger rocks. More information: www.nwhgeopark.com
On this page there’s a brief outline of the different landscapes and habitats you will encounter. Skip to a section:
Mountain & Moorland
The moorland in North Sutherland forms part of the ‘Flow Country’. This huge expanse of moorland and blanket bog is of international importance and soon to be designated a World Heritage Site. The RSPB Forsinard reserve gives a great introduction to this rare habitat. Moorland has acidic, low-nutrient soils; bogs occur where the soil is water-logged. Colourful heather dominates the moors, and three species can be found; common heather or ling, bell heather and cross-leaved heath.
Sphagnum mosses and carnivorous plants are features of bogs. Common lizards, hen harriers, merlins and short-eared owls are some highlights. There are some fantastic mountains in the area including, the highest point in Sutherland, Ben Klibreck, which lies just to the south of Altnaharra. Further north, nearer the coast, lie the most northerly Munro, Ben Hope, and the stunning Ben Loyal – known as the Queen of Scottish mountains. To the north west, lying within the North West Highlands Geopark are the quartzite mountains of Foinaven and Arkle. Mountains are tough places to live. Soils are thin or non-existent on steep mountain slopes, which are home to specialist alpine plants. Watch out for golden and white-tailed eagles, buzzards, and ptarmigan.
Rivers and lochs are frequent and characteristic in our landscape. Beautiful water lilies can be seen in summer, when dragonflies including golden-ringed, four-spotted chaser, and large red damselflies hunt over the water. Look out for common frogs, toads and palmate newts, along with dabbling ducks and little grebes. Black-throated and red-throated divers breed on the freshwater lochs and they can sometimes be heard calling on still days.
The coast is where most of our communities are situated, in villages linked closely with the sea, such as Scourie, Kinlochbervie, Durness, Melness, Bettyhill and Melvich. Our seas contain the greatest diversity of life on earth, and the North Atlantic Ocean here, is no exception. Cetaceans and basking sharks are regular visitors and there are resident grey and harbour seals. The coast is a complex, constantly changing habitat of sand and mud, rock and cliff that is home to many species. Flowers such as thrift, sea campion and the rare Scottish primrose thrive here, and colourful lichens coat the rocks. Cliffs make important nesting places for seabirds. Fulmars, gulls and guillemots are easy to spot. Look out for rare black guillemots, known locally as ‘Tysties’, and great skuas called ‘Bonxies’. Gannets patrol the seas all year and great-northern divers visit in winter. Elusive otters are everywhere, if you’re patient and quiet, you might be rewarded with a view of this special species.
An estuary develops where a river or stream flows into the sea. Fresh and salt water mix here, so the wildlife has to cope with both. The Kyle of Tongue and Kyle of Durness are examples of large estuaries; muddy inland and becoming increasingly sandy towards the open sea. At certain times of the year, especially spring and autumn, they team with life, particularly migrating birds. At Skerray, where the River Borgie enters the sea, there is a smaller, interesting salt water estuary to explore. Look for otters, curlews, mergansers, and overwintering ducks and waders such as wigeons, goldeneyes and curlews.
Forest & Woodland
Forests and woodlands are more than just trees. They are complex communities where plants, animals and fungi all need each other. They supply the oxygen we require to survive and provide the timber for products we use every day. Many small migratory birds can be spotted in forests in spring and autumn. In winter look for waxwings, finches, tits and crossbills, and see what fungi you can see in autumn. The spiral of native tree species at Borgie Breco is worth a visit.
‘Crofting’ is low intensity farming which provides a range of habitats for wildlife. It attracts wintering geese & many other birds and insects. In grassy areas look out for orchids – northern marsh, butterfly & fragrant orchids can all be found here. In less grazed, more exposed coastal areas you might even find the rare Scottish primrose.
The beautiful and diverse landscape of North Sutherland hosts an inspiring variety of species, most of which are under recorded. As you travel around our area, please record what you see, and let us know. We can make your sightings count by ensuring they are sent to the National Biodiversity Database, where they will help protect our natural world.
Wildlife Watching Code
- Follow the Scottish Outdoor Access Code at all times. www.outdooraccess-scotland.com
- Respect wildlife, countryside, livestock & local communities.
- Observe animals from a safe distance using binoculars and telescopes. If an animal changes behaviour as a result of your presence, you are too close.
- Do not disturb nests and breeding sites. Be aware that a breeding site location is sensitive information.
- Do not pick flowers or plants.
Forest & Woodland banner image © Stephen Kirkup. All other images on this page © John Wright.