Groundbreaking project returns oysters to their original habitat

Richard Harrington By: Richard Harrington
Date posted: 12 October 2018

We are introducing more oysters to the Dornoch Firth to recreate natural reefs where they once thrived, giving benefits to the wildlife and water quality of the area.

Diver holding scallops for the Glenmorangie's Deep project

Native oysters were common in the Dornoch Firth until they were fished to extinction over a hundred years ago. Now, as a partner in the Dornoch Environmental Enhancement Project (DEEP, with Heriot-Watt University and Glenmorangie) we are helping to return the oyster beds here to their natural state.

20,000 oysters are now being carefully placed, on a bed of waste shell that has been laid to mimic their natural habitat.

Following a small-scale trial last year, this is the first time that native oysters have been re-introduced to an area where the species had become extinct, and promises potential wider benefits for Scotland’s seas. Calum Duncan, MCS Head of Conservation, Scotland, says: “Native oysters flourished in the Dornoch Firth from up to 10,000 years ago before being wiped out in the 19th century. Their return will enrich the ecosystem of an already internationally important area of Scotland’s inshore waters.”

The native oysters, all grown in the UK, have been painstakingly cleaned and checked for disease and unwanted “hitchhikers”, and will be regularly monitored. Dr Bill Sanderson of Heriot-Watt University who is leading the restoration project said “While this is on a much greater scale than last year’s test introductions, we will be studying how well the oysters fare, and their effects on the seabed around them. We intend to ensure that sufficient numbers of oysters grow in the area to make the reefs truly self-sustaining.”

Divers surveying scallops for the Glenmorangie's Deep project

Hamish Torrie, Glenmorangie’s Corporate Social Responsibility director, said: “We are very excited to move DEEP to its next stage and have been hugely encouraged by the enthusiastic support that our meticulous, research-led approach has received from a wide range of Scottish Government agencies and native oyster growers – it is a truly collaborative effort.”

Dr Bill Sanderson, Associate Professor of Marine Biodiversity at Heriot-Watt, said: “This is the first time anyone has tried to recreate a natural European oyster habitat in a protected area. We hope to create an outstanding environment for marine life in the Firth – and act as a driving force behind other oyster regeneration work across Europe.”

If successful, this project will offer many benefits to the marine environment, and will help inform conservationists around the world in efforts to reintroduce similar native species to areas where they have become extinct. As well as helping to improve water quality, native oysters also create microhabitats for other marine life, which increases an area’s biodiversity.

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