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July 23rd, 2008
SNH to Map the Secrets Beneath the Waves of Scotland’s loneliest island reserve

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PR – The undersea world surrounding Scotland’s most remote National Nature Reserve
(NNR) is about to be explored and charted for the first time next week
(beginning 15th July) in a marine survey being conducted by Scottish Natural
Heritage (SNH).

North Rona is one of Scotland’s most remote and isolated
island outposts sitting forty seven miles out in the Atlantic north east of the
Butt of Lewis. Despite its NNR designation the marine environment of the island
has never been fully surveyed and this year SNH has launched a two stage survey
project to map and record the marine life which exists in the seas around the
island.

Now SNH hopes to add to what we know about the reserve by going
beneath the waves to explore North Rona’s reefs, caves and gullies. Heading up
the SNH team is Dylan Todd who is coordinating an initial eight day sweep of the
sea around North Rona aboard the specially chartered Orkney survey craft Ocean
Explorer. He said:

"We’ll be gathering a huge amount of information on
the rich and diverse marine life surrounding North Rona in order to develop a
management plan to help protect the area. We expect to find kelp forests
extending as deep as 35m and areas of open rock supporting rich marine
communities of sponges, anemones, soft corals and ascidians. We’ll also be
exploring sea caves used by grey seals for shelter and passing this information
to our colleagues at the Sea Mammal Research Unit in St. Andrews as well as
collecting rock samples for the British Geological Survey to conduct geological
analysis."

Now uninhabited, North Rona has strong links to the
neighbouring ‘mainland’ of Lewis where historically people from Ness travelled
seasonally to fish its waters and graze sheep on the lush grassy slopes. Indeed
physical evidence and the Gaelic place names of the landscape reveal that
despite its remoteness, the island has been home to a succession of inhabitants
down through the centuries.

In more recent times interest in the study
of the island’s natural heritage was sparked by the visit of the distinguished
Scottish naturalist Frank Fraser Darling who spent a year on North Rona in 1938
studying the grey seal colonies. Now owned and managed by SNH, North Rona is
Britain’s least visited National Nature Reserve, designated for its important
breeding habitats for grey seal and seabird colonies, especially European
Storm-petrel and the larger Leech’s Storm-petrel.

The first stage of the
survey will build up a detailed map of the sea floor around the island using a
high resolution side-scan sonar to accurately map the seabed. Over the eight
days the Ocean Explorer will crisscross the marine Special Area of Conservation
collecting bathymetric data to determine the seabed topography including the
reefs and well developed sea caves.

The team will spend time on the
island itself which has a small hut maintained by the Sea Mammal Research Unit
for the occasional research teams and visitors to the island to use.

The
North Rona broad scale marine survey continues SNH’s recent work in charting the
rich and diverse natural heritage of Scotland’s seas which include surveys of St
Kilda, Loch Madaidh in Uist, Moray Firth and Loch Creran in Argyll. The next
stage of the North Rona survey will be the full undersea survey of the
archipelago using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) to explore the nature and
wildlife which abounds on the reefs beneath the waves. Dylan says he and his
colleagues are particularly looking forward to this stage of the
survey

""The cold sub-arctic waters around North Rona results in a
characteristic boreal northern latitude community with the influence of the
North Atlantic Drift apparent in the presence of many southern species. This
rich marine life coupled with the large breeding group of grey seals, the third
largest in the British Isles, makes this survey particularly exciting for me,
it’s what fieldwork is all about."

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