Walkers, you will be delighted with the choice of local beauty spots to investigate-why not try to catch a glimpse of deer on the nearby hillsides.
The landscape of the Helmsdale area is very old. Formed by volcanic heat and pressure millions of years ago, its hills have been ground and carved by the great glaciers of the ice ages. Each year, this work continues, the glaciers have gone but the rain, frost and snow continue to work on them, until eventually they will disappear or be replaced. But today they seem to last forever, unchanging. Although not very high, because of their latitude, (58oN) the hilltops resemble the Arctic tundra and spend a good part of each year under a blanket of snow. So that the traveller who walks from the palm trees at Portgower and Loth to the top of Beinn Mhealaich will pass thorough a series of climatic changes, the main one occurring at the hill fence, which is the boundary between the crofting land and the open hill. It is also the approximation of the snow line in winter and although this varies from day to day it can often be seen that the main change in temperature takes place at 400ft, being less than half a mile from the sea.
The other main boundary is the sea shore, but this is a more physical and permanent one. The waters of the Moray Firth are home to many creatures. Although the whale is rarely seen, seals abound, along with porpoises, lobsters, crabs and many types of fish, the most famous being the Atlantic Salmon. These can be seen forging up the river Helmsdale to their breeding beds in the high feeder streams. The beaches to the south of Helmsdale offer the best chance of seeing seals as they often bask here with their pups, whilst the harbour wall and the bridges in the village are good vantage points from which to see the salmon. North of Helmsdale, Caithness, cliffs rise steeply from the sea and these are home to colonies of seabirds, cormorant and shag are overlooked by guillemot and kittiwake, are overlooked in their turn by puffins and razor bills. In the caves rock doves, wild ancestor of the racing pigeon, still nest in numbers. Flourishing in these high tenements and bringing colour to the cliffs are thrift, sea campions and candytuft and the golden lichens.
These cliffs are best seen from sea level and access can be gained at Berriedale, Just a short distance from the car park.
Behind the tidal strip is a narrow belt of land which is used for farming and crofting. The comparative fertility of the soil and the shelter given by the dykes (walls) and trees make this area a haven for those species unable to exist on the harsh hillside. Rabbits are the main diet of the buzzard and ermine, whilst small birds such as the green plover, chaffinch and thrush feed the sparrow hawk, and mice and voles for the kestrel. All those creatures are sheltered by the gorse and broom which grow wherever they can, and by the main species of trees, sycamore, ash, rowan, hazel and scrub birch. Any shelter from the wind is utilized by the many species of wild flowers, among them the primrose, violet, pansy and yellow flag, also the insectivorous butterwort and sundew.
Cutting through this belt of farming land are the sheep valleys formed by the burns (streams). Because of their steep sides and depth they form small areas which are free from grazing and the worst of the scouring winter winds. Here the softer plants can be found such as the bluebell, orchids and kingcups and in these burns live the wild brown trout, smaller than his brother from the loch but hardy and beautiful.
Once through the hill fence gate, another change takes place - shelter here is almost non existent and only the hardiest can survive. The main vegetation is heather (bell and ling), sedges and grasses, moss and lichens. Cotton grass and bog myrtle grow in the water logged patches, crowberry, cloudberry cling to the steeper rocks, but heath dominates, turning the hills purple in July and August. It also provides grazing for the red grouse, blue hare and red deer. The blue hare (white in winter) is less than it used to be but the grouse and deer are t be found in very large numbers. The wildcat and fox also stalk these hills but are not often seen, only the remains of their last meal indicate where they've been!
Luck always plays a large part in seeing these wild creatures, Hours can be spent searching the skyline for an eagle or peregrine falcon only to find one soaring over the main road on the way home!
If you wish to walk the hills in search of plants and birds ask a local person as they may well be able to help you and save hours of tramping. Also bear in mind that although the hills are wild and lonely places there are various activities which to the unwary can be potentially dangerous. From 12th August grouse-shooting and from July to February deer stalking are in progress. If you are in any doubt, please ask and please, when on farmland or the moor, keep your dog on a lead.
If you go walking in the Helmsdale area or rambling around the village. You are invited to submit information and images to us and we will include it in this page.
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