THE FLOW COUNTRY HOME CLIMATE RISK SPECIES ADMIN. CONTACT GOALS

The 2013 review by RAFTS and ASFB includes a piece from a director of the River Dee Trust stating that water temperatures above 25°C now occur “routinely”. In 2007 one of their biologists reported a temperature of 27°C. Marine Scotland Science (MSS)  says a 2°C rise in average water temperatures has happened over the last thirty years on the Dee. Closer to home, the comprehensive electric-fishing survey of the Caithness rivers that took place in the autumn of 2013 showed that many of the parr captured had suffered checks in growth, probably as a result of the exceptionally hot weather and low water in July that year.

Irrespective of the causes of global warming, it’s here to stay. One would need to have a very long horizon to believe otherwise. With it will come change in many forms. What we need are the tools to measure these changes, tools that are capable of delivering precise, science-based snapshots of every single aspect of the Flow Country fisheries at the present time. Once we have these baselines we can see what’s happening and decide accordingly.

….It fills the county of Caithness and the eastern part of Sutherland. Its 1,500 square miles (4,000 sq. km.) make it the largest area of blanket bog in the world. It’s one of just three sites in Scotland listed as a possible UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s kissed by the Gulf Stream. And it’s probably the easiest place in Britain to get lost in a snow storm.

It’s also different for another, very modern, reason: as the centre of the renewables industry. As one politician put it, the northland is “the new Saudi Arabia.” These various enterprises have been drawn there by the favourable climatic conditions for wind farms, by the potential for producing tidal energy on a huge scale in the Pentland Firth and by the possibility of developing wave power commercially.

The Flow Country Rivers Trust is a charity registered in Scotland. Its purpose is to promote and support initiatives, including research and education, to further the conservation of freshwater species of fish and associated flora and fauna within the Flow Country.

The subject of climate change is one that readily attracts debate. Are we becoming too alarmist? Absolutely, say some. Scientists, however, are vehement that the climate is changing and changing fast. If they are right, the increase in winter rainfall will wash out the redds where salmon spawn and the rise in temperature of the North East Atlantic will force all migratory fish to work very much harder for their food and thus for their lives. Species such as salmon, sea trout and eel, which have to run the gauntlet of both river and ocean for great distances in order to complete their life cycle, will be more in peril than ever.

Lochan Thulachan

Photo Alan Youngson

There is one more concerning aspect of scientific prediction, one that strikes at the very heart of the fisheries resource: river temperature. Salmon and sea trout begin to run into trouble when water temperature reaches about 20°C. For young fish, growth rate declines, then feeding ceases and at 25°C or so death occurs. Quiescent adults fare much better than fish which have been disturbed. Nevertheless, all salmon are in deadly peril by the time that stream temperature moves past 25°C. In fact there’s no reason to stop at salmon: all riverine species at our latitude are in danger when high temperatures coincide with low flows of water. The fish in the relatively small spate rivers of the Flow Country will be the first victims in prolonged periods of heat.

The Atlantic salmon is a flagship species, one of the few. Had it not been able to adapt to the climate change we’ve had in the past, it would have disappeared long ago. But those were changes that occurred at a leisurely pace. The warming that we’re now experiencing is happening rapidly. There are already species such as the Russian sturgeon and the river dolphin that are either too low in number to sustain their populations or are unable to keep up with the rate of change in their environment. They are officially labelled “endangered” but in fact they are trapped in the vortex of extinction and one could write out their death certificates tomorrow.

Are we to let the wild Atlantic salmon go the same way? Shrug our shoulders and say “Who cares?” as one of our truly great assets is written off the books? Of course not. We must therefore do everything that is humanly possible, and then some more, for it and its close relative the sea trout. The fact that they must adapt at a speed far faster than they ever have done before must not discourage us. We must help them. We must improve our rivers. We must look at all the species in our rivers and lochs and see how, taking advantage of everything that science and money has to offer, we can help safeguard their future. That’s the business of the Flow Country Rivers Trust and that’s why it needs your support.

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 Looking to Scaraben and Morven, the southern frontier of the Flow Country

Photo Ken Macleod

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© 2017 FCRT / ALASDAIR OGILVIE

Photo Anson MacAuslan

It’s impossible to have too much information. Weather-wise, the past has ceased to be a guide to the future. None of us knows what lies ahead. We should therefore gather together all the knowledge that we can about our rivers and lochs and the species that inhabit them, in fact about everything that could have a bearing, maybe fifty years out, on the measures needed to help them through trouble. Nothing on this scale has been attempted before. Without question it will turn into an entire gazetteer of possibilities.

With this end in mind the Trust’s Scientific Advisor has written a paper on the steps that need to be taken and the benefits to be derived. In making this inventory we would be doing, on a tiny scale, what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has just started doing in the United States: Assessing the Vulnerability of Fish Stocks in a Changing Climate.

The Flow Country is different….

The Flow

Country

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The Rivers

All have the power to impact severely on the fisheries of the Flow Country: the wind farms by massive excavations in the peatlands that can silt up the spawning gravel, and the underwater turbines and similar devices by creating hazards in the path of migratory species of fish. Additionally, about 150,000 acres (60,000 ha) were planted with conifers from the 1970s onwards for tax reasons. Knowing what we do now about the ecology of the Flows, it can be said that this was an unhappy initiative. A massive project is currently being mounted by the RSPB at their Forsinard reserve to restore the integrity of the peatlands. Such is the damage that was done in the past, it will be a very long-term project and will itself involve risk - see Forestry.

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