Page last updated at 10:18 GMT, Tuesday, 2 June 2009 11:18 UK

Fire 'severely damaged' habitat

Heath fire
Heath fires burned in the area for several days in April

A fire at the most northerly point of mainland Britain damaged more than a quarter of an important wildlife sanctuary, it has emerged.

The blaze at Dunnet Head, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), in April was thought to have been caused by moor burning getting out of control.

Scottish Natural Heritage has now assessed the damage, and said it could take years for the habitat to recover.

A police inquiry is ongoing into the cause of the blaze.

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

Nesting species include kittiwakes, guillemots, razorbills, puffins, fulmars, shags, cormorants and gulls.

We estimate that around 27% of the habitat has been significantly damaged by this fire
Lesley Cranna
Scottish Natural Heritage

The effect on seabirds at the site is still being assessed, while cliff erosion caused by the fire, which burned for several days, may, in turn, affect nesting birds.

Land stretching about three miles from south of The Neback to the north of Rowrash was affected, with a total area of about 750 hectares damaged.

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 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."

Extra vigilance

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."

Crofters and landowners have been asked to apply extra vigilance and responsible land management in the face of heightened fire risks from the hot, dry weather.

Under the Muirburn Code the practice of moor burning below 450m is strictly controlled and regulated under legislation governing farming, wildlife and countryside, public health, built heritage and safety at work.

The practice is permitted only between the 1 October and 15 April - with possible extension to 30 April.

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