The East Caithness Cliffs SPA is located on the east coast of Caithness in northern Scotland. The site comprises most of the sea-cliff areas between Wick and Helmsdale. The cliffs are formed from Old Red Sandstone and are generally between 30-60 m high, rising to 150 m at Berriedale. Cliff ledges, stacks and geos provide ideal nesting sites for internationally important populations of seabirds, especially gulls and auks. The seabirds nesting on the East Caithness Cliffs feed outside the SPA in inshore waters as well as further away. The cliffs also provide important nesting habitat for Peregrine Falco peregrinus. The cliffs overlook the Moray Firth, an area that provides rich feeding areas for fish-eating seabirds.
Nearly 1,000 black guillemot live on the rocky crevices and ledges of the sea cliffs between Wick and Helmsdale. The East Caithness Cliffs possible Marine Protected Area (MPA) includes the cliff nesting areas of these striking birds as well as adjacent coastal waters where they feed. The sandstone cliffs which rise to 150 m at Berriedale have been weathered by the action of the sea to provide ideal nesting conditions for breeding seabirds and the black guillemots jostle for space amongst an estimated 300,000 other tenants.
The possible MPA will provide protection for an estimated 2.5% of the British population of black guillemot. This is the most important area on the east coast of the UK for this charismatic Scottish seabird. The possible MPA builds on the East Caithness Cliffs Special Protection Area (SPA), designated for internationally important numbers of other seabirds including razorbill, black-legged kittiwake, northern fulmar and common guillemot.
Away from the coast, the seabed within the possible MPA drops away gradually and the black guillemot feed in these rich tide-swept waters. Using their wings to propel them through the water they forage for fish and crabs on the seabed to depths of about 50 m, holding their breaths for up to 21⁄2 minutes.