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Caithness News Bulletins January 2004

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Divers, fishermen and local people asked to look out for rare underwater plant 21 January 04

Divers, inshore fishermen and local people from West Sutherland and North West Ross are being asked to report sightings of a rare underwater plant.

Common Eelgrass, (Zostera marina) is a species of seagrass with leaves that are said to look like green eels when they move with the current of the sea. It is the subject of a survey being carried out this year by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to find out where it occurs around the north coast.

Common eelgrass likes a sheltered sand or mud substrate to grow in and does not like to grow deeper than 10m. There are three different species of eelgrass in the UK and all are considered scarce. It is an important species for the biodiversity of Scotland's marine environment by providing shelter for flatfish and, in some areas, for cephalopods such as squid and octopus.

Rachel Horsburgh, an SNH area officer in the north-west, said local divers and fishermen could hold the key to recording the plant's distribution. She added: "In North Highland we have important and extensive beds of dwarf and narrow-leaved eelgrass in the Dornoch Firth. However, common eelgrass, the completely sub-tidal species is under recorded in North Highland, with only two confirmed beds in North West Ross. But we believe it is likely that there is more of it around that originally thought. Divers, fishermen and local people could be instrumental in helping to fill in the knowledge gaps we have of this species' distribution in the north."

Common Eelgrass - Zostera marina - Diver Lorne Gill

Small eelgrass beds of approximate size 0.5ha and 0.03ha are known to occur in Enard Bay, in North West Ross. These are the only two common eelgrass sites in the North Highland area that have been recorded by the Marine Nature Conservation Review (see notes). A further site was noted in 2001 in Port Dhrombaig, Edrachillis Bay, West Sutherland, by a local biological recorder.

Wash-ups of the species have also been recorded on beaches at Clashnessie, Achmelvich, Clachtoll, Culkein Stoer and Balcladich Bay, West Sutherland.

Starting this year, SNH will carry out survey work to find more of these hidden beds, to help find out more about this important and fragile habitat. Using underwater cameras, the aim is to map the full distribution and extent of common eelgrass beds in West Sutherland and North West Ross.

Meanwhile anyone who is aware of any sub-tidal eelgrass beds anywhere in the wider area of coast between Gruinard Bay on the west around the north to the Dornoch Firth in the east is asked to contact Rachel Horsburgh at SNH Ullapool on 01854 613418.

Scottish Natural Heritage is the Scottish Executive's statutory advisor in respect to the conservation, enhancement, understanding and sustainable use of the natural heritage.

MNCR - The Marine Conservation Review of Great Britain (the MNCR) commenced in 1987 with the main objectives of identifying sites and species of nature conservation importance extending our knowledge of benthic marine habitats, communities and species in Great Britain, particularly through description of their characteristics, distribution and extent. One of the MNCR's major achievements was the production of the 1997 version of the Marine biotope classification for Britain and Ireland. The results of the MNCR field surveys are disseminated for use by conservation organisations.

Rachel Horsburgh, SNH, Ullapool
Tel: 01854 613 419 email Rachel.Horsburgh@snh.gov.uk