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Far north is a proper part of the Highlands – and benefits from lack of crowds


By Ben MacGregor

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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: Wildlife and natural features aplenty in Caithness and north Sutherland can easily compare to elsewhere in the region

The Unknown sculpture.
The Unknown sculpture.

It probably stems from Dounreay days. Many folk from the south moved to Thurso but never left the town other than to travel to work or make long trips back over the Ord.

So Caithness was regarded as a bleak, grey county with little to offer compared with the proper Highlands with all its mountains and lochs. Some still see it that way.

Of course, Caithness (and north Sutherland) is a true part of the Highlands. The unique landscape of the Flow Country, the dramatic coastline, the countless lochs and even the mountains are increasingly recognised for being the very special places they are.

You can’t compare the far north with Torridon – are Whaligeo steps more dramatic than Liathach?

There is no wildflife spectacle more amazing than what you can see this month in Caithness. Grey seals have become increasingly common in recent years but there are few places on the UK mainland where you can watch them safely and easily without disturbing the animals.

Just take a pair of binoculars, leave the car or bicycle by the lighthouse on Duncansby Head and walk the short way down the hill to where you can see the big stony bay below, opposite the Duncansby Stacks.

You’ll immediately see several hundred seals, new white pups, larger pups, mothers and huge bulls. You’ll hear the seals mooing, see the little pups suckling. They drink enormous quantities of very fatty milk for three weeks, the mother seals then leave them to moult and eventually take to the water.

Borgie.
Borgie.

The bulls sometimes fight for control of harems of females, they mate both in and out of the sea. In stormy conditions the mothers protect their pups from being washed away. No need to tune in to Autumnwatch, you can watch with your own eyes for as long as you want.

Don’t go down, keep your dog close and you’ll not disturb the animals at all. A calm day is best – when we went there recently it was too windy to keep the binos steady!

If you are fortunate enough to be able to visit Stroma (alas, I won’t manage it this autumn) it’s even more spectacular. Seals are in all the stony coves and beaches and migrate in numbers across the eastern fields as far as the road.

Last time I took a photo of a large bull with a female which proved too explicit to dare post on the internet! Always check with the owner if you are thinking of going, also it may be impossible to land amid the breeding animals.

A flock of white whooper swans flying low, a field full of wild geese, otters in the river, a roe-deer silhouetted against the sunset, woodcock taking fright amid the trees, these are just the common wildlife sightings.

Only a few days ago a huge, dark bird flew low over the road in front of us – a juvenile sea-eagle. Birders will be noticing all kinds of rare migrants.

You can even walk amid some fine autumn trees without going too far. Just west of Bettyhill is Borgie Forest, once a big spruce plantation but now largely felled and replanted. Twenty years ago, near the main forest entrance, a wide selection of native trees was planted in a spiral on a hectare clear-felled site.

Seals on Stroma.
Seals on Stroma.

Each of the 20 species represents a character of the old Gaelic tree alphabet, for instance ‘D’ is for ‘Dair’, meaning oak. Amazingly, all the varieties have grown well.

So you walk through birch, rowan, ash, holly, aspen and so on, the ground carpeted with the different leaves. It’s well worth a visit, or wait till the new growth of spring. That the trees have done so well just shows how the over-grazed and repeatedly burnt moorland west of Strathy would naturally be rich deciduous woodland.

Getting nice trees to grow in Caithness itself is, though, a bit harder!

And have you ever been intrigued by that signpost pointing to The Unknown as you come down the hill towards Borgie on the Tongue Road? It’s another unexpected trail through new woodland created after clear-felling.

This time the short walk climbs to a surprise sculpture on a hilltop with fine views out across the forests and moors to the high Sutherland peaks.

We have wonderful wildlife and scenery combined with a lack of crowds, something you no longer find at any accessible spot further south. The far north is definitely up with the best in the Highlands – and indeed the world.


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