Loch of Mey/Loch Heilen Caithness Lochs, Caithness District, Highland Region
History and Status: International importance (part of R&O 43). Irregular counts in the 1960s and 1970s showed highly variable numbers, perhaps because this flock was dispersed in earlier times in smaller units throughout rather more feeding areas than is currently the case. More recently in the early 1980s, some of these changes may relate to the absorption of birds that were formerly using the Loch Scarmclate and Loch of Winless areas described below. However, since the mid-1980s, this flock has consistently numbered 100-250 birds, and the trend has mirrored the nearby Westfield flock, a very gradual increase to peak in this case in 2001, with signs of recent declines. This is now the only other and second important flock of the two which now regularly frequent northern Caithness. Two leg-ringed birds from Greenland have been read at this site, as well as a Wexford marked female with her family. Resightings have confirmed the use of several areas around the vicinity by this group of birds which clearly seem to be distinct from the Westfield group, with which there has been interchange of only one unusual marked individual.
Maximum winter counts:
Breeding success: Good age ratio data over many years shows variable but reasonably good breeding success, with much lower output since the late 1990s (see fist diagram below). The annual production follows that of Islay (see second diagram below).
Feeding sites and habitat: This flock has a feeding range distributed throughout north-east Caithness, using a number of alternative feeding sites near and around Loch Heilen (ND2568) and adjacent areas, such as Schoolary (ND2968) and Syster (ND2769). In addition, birds use Loch of Mey (ND2773) and adjacent areas, such as Rattar (ND2673), Charleston (ND2671), and Wester, by St. John’s Loch (ND2272). The geese again use stubble fields in the early winter from arrival, especially in the Lyth Valley on Blackpark Farm (ND2864), moving to rough pastures during the majority of the winter. Loch of Mey, with its peripheral wetlands, shallow water areas and wet grassland seems to be attractive from January onwards, but the geese move to reseeded grassland in the spring. The geese may also move as far as Loch of Toftinghall in some winters.
Roosting sites: Loch Heilen was thought to be the regular roost when birds are feeding in this area, but this seems to be abandoned since the mid 1990s, perhaps because of disturbance caused by heavy dawn shooting pressure on the large numbers of Greylag Geese which roosted on the Loch and feed in nearby farmland (Laybourne 1997). Loch of Mey seems increasingly to be the most commonly used roost site, used exclusively when feeding in the fields adjacent, especially in spring, when they seem to favour the eastern side of the loch as the night time resting place.
Habitat change: Rough grazing at the north end of Loch Heilen has been drained and agriculturally improved in recent years and may have lost some of its attraction to the geese for feeding.
Aircraft disturbance: None known
Hunting disturbance: The farmer at Greenland Mains Farm is one of four farmers in Caithness that has requested shooting licence for Greylag Geese which did formerly occur in very large numbers at the site in autumn and spring. For a period in the 1980s and 1990s, these geese attracted large numbers of wildfowlers which caused disturbance to the White-fronted Geese. With the declines in numbers, this has become less of a problem in recent years.
Agricultural disturbance: Where ewes are fed daily, there is inevitable disturbance, but with ample feeding in the vicinity, this is unlikely to be a major problem. Two local Loch of Mey farmers are not at all concerned with the presence of the geese.
Site safeguards or disturbance refuge: Lochs Heilen, Mey and Watten are all SSSIs and are components of the Caithness Lochs SPA and Ramsar Site. Lochs Heilen and Mey are alternative roosts for what appears to be the same group of birds (based on individual markings).
SNH Natural Heritage Zones/Area: Orkney and Northern Caithness
Threats: There is a high level of shooting in the Heilen area, especially of Greylags that are also shot under license during the spring. Such disruption during the period of rapid fat accumulation for Whitefronts could be detrimental. Duck shooting on Loch of Mey may also cause disruption. Rough grazing in the northern area around Loch Heilen was drained in the early 1980s, making the area less attractive to geese. Some of the base-rich wet grassland of the area has also become drier through wind-blown sand accumulation, reducing the attractiveness of the immediate area around the roost at Loch Heilen.
Linkages with other sites:
1. Two different individuals ringed in Eqalungmiut Nunaat on the breeding grounds have been seen in winter at the resorts used by this flock, but interestingly, neither these birds nor those seen at Westfield shifted between the feeding areas used by the two flocks suggesting they are discrete.
2. Four birds ringed in Isungua on the breeding grounds in 1992 have wintered amongst this group.
3. Only one Wexford ringed bird, 2RT, has been seen in this flock. That individual apparently shifted from Wexford to winter in Caithness. It was caught at Wexford in 1985/6 and wintered there in 1986/7 (last seen 3rd March 1987) but was seen at Oust on 5th April 1987. It was seen at Loch of Mey and Oust in winter 1987/8, Loch Heilen and Loch of Mey in 1988/9 and at Loch of Mey, Loch Scarmclate and Charleston in winter 1989/90, the last year it was seen. This bird is the only one to be seen at Scarmclate, but given that it also shifted between the Mey/Heilen and Westfield resorts, this bird may have been unusual in its behaviour of shifting between flocks.
Laybourne, S. (1997) Survey of winter wildfowl using Caithness Lochs proposed Special Potection Area and Ramsar Site. Unpublished report to Scottish Natural Heritage.
Laybourne, S. & Fox, A.D. (1988) Greenland White-fronted Geese in Caithness. Scottish Birds 15: 30-35.