The Moray Firth shores have some of the most striking examples of bars, spits and dune systems in Scotland.
Sand dunes are one of the most truly wild habitats left in Britain, but they are also one of the most threatened and fragmented by development; so those around the Moray Firth are important, and often have both national and international designations intended to protect them.
The largest areas of wind-blown sand in Britain are found at Culbin Sands, near Nairn and Morrich More, near Tain. Culbin is now largely forested, but Morrich More remains largely protected through its use by the Ministry of Defence as a bombing practice site.
The Dornoch Firth and Morrich More form one of the best examples of a large complex estuary in northwest Europe, and has been recognised as one of 165 Important Plant Areas in the UK. The area includes the most extensive area of pioneer glasswort Salicornia spp. saltmarsh in Scotland. From young shifting dunes to mature fixed dunes and dune heath Morrich More is one of the best UK examples of a complete system of dunes. It is the most important site in the UK for dune juniper, a nationally important species.
To the north the Coul Links sand dune system, by Embo and Loch Fleet hosts a number of internationally significant species. In summer you can see an abundance of flowers, including orchids, rock rose, burnet rose and vetches. The tiny Fonseca seed fly lives here and is endemic to just 30km of Sutherland Coast. It is described by Scottish Natural Heritage as ‘one of Scotland’s biodiversity priorities’.
On the south shore of the Moray Firth sand dunes are found at Findhorn, Burghead Bay, Hopeman and the east and west beaches by Lossiemouth.
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The most spectacular shingle beach of the Moray Firth is found at Culbin – where the ever moving 7 km long shingle bar protects lagoon and saltmarsh. Virtually undisturbed by human activity, Culbin Bar, with its series of high energy gravel beaches and ridges is one of the finest examples of vegetated shingle in Britain, supporting over 550 species of flowering plants and an outstanding diversity of 450 species of fungi and 150 species of lichen. Plants include kidney vetch, and the best and richest examples of northern heath on shingle, with heather, crowberry and juniper predominating. One fungus species, the sand deceiver, is not found at any other site in Britain.
Shingle heath can also be seen inland of the Findhorn dunes, at Lossie Forest and at the Lein Nature Reserve, beside Spey Bay.
Findhorn Bay and its surrounding shingle heath, backshore dunes and saltmarsh has been designated as a Local Nature Reserve (LNR) by the Moray Council.
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Stretching south from Duncansby Head in Caithness you can see one of the finest stretches of cliff coastline in mainland Britain, filled with cliffs, caves, geos, arches and stacks. The spectacular cliffs are made from Old Red Sandstone, which outcrops around much of the Moray Firth coastline, and was formed under the waters of Lake Orcadie, c.400 million years ago.
There are several famous geological sites, including the cliffs and bays near to Cromarty, which were the haunt of Victorian geologist and writer, Hugh Miller who first identified fossil fish preserved in the rock.
From Wick to Helmsdale the East Caithness Cliffs Marine Protected Area (MPA) is designated for its population of more than 1,500 breeding black guillemots (also called tystie), for which this is the most important area on the east coast of the UK. They breed in nooks and crannies at the bottom of the cliffs, and stay throughout the year, feeding close inshore on fish and crabs. The cliffs also host many tens of thousands of other seabirds, including guillemots, razorbills and kittiwakes.
Along the southern shore of the Moray FIrth, to the east of Banff, lies another stretch of seabird filled cliffs at Troup Head. This has become an important breeding site for 6,500 gannets, but you can also see guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes, fulmars and a scattering of puffins. Troup Head is an RSPB reserve.
Rocky shores are often on wave scoured headlands, where the bedrock provides a secure hard surface for many seaweeds. You’ll also find many filter feeding animals – barnacles, limpets mussels and sea anemones, with crabs, starfish, snails and fish sheltering and feeding among the seaweed fronds.
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Moray and Caithness: a landscape fashioned by Geology, SNH Publication
East Caithness Cliffs Marine Protected Area
RSPB Troup Head