The Dunbeath Water flows for 20km from its source at the 300m contour of Loch Braigh na h-Aibhne, high in the Flow Country where the underlying geology is largely granitic with overlying peat. The river then flows eastwards towards the North Sea, switching from gentle meanders to a fast-flowing torrent as the rock base changes from granite to Old Devonian sandstone. The river flows into its own strath before exiting into the Moray Firth at the harbour of Dunbeath on the northeast coast of Scotland, 32km south of Wick. The river is joined by numerous tributaries throughout, with the two most significant being the Achorn and Houstry burns. Flow is also maintained by feeds from two medium sized lochs: Loch Dhu and Loch Braec. These lochs have hatches dating from the early 2oth Century which have been repaired and refurbished by the current owners. The hatches allow importan buffering against very low flow conditions during times of drought. The Dunbeath Water has a 60 km2 catchment, consisting of mainly upland Flow country, passing into low ground hazel and birch woodland, with some managed grassland for sheep grazing. There are no significant impassable falls on the river, providing extensive spate river habitat for juvenile and spawning salmon. Large spates can discharge a peat and sediment slick into the North Sea which remains visible for a mile. There is considerable land slippage in the lower reaches during extreme spates, requiring direct physical management and regular maintenance to prevent disruption to the river structure and surrounding habitat.

Water quality is monitored monthly by SEPA (see Appendix 1), including measures of flow, suspended solids, pH, conductivity, calcium carbonates and hardness, oxygen levels, nitrates and nitrites, chloride, silicate, sulphate and sulphite, as well as a range of individual elements (Na, K, Ca, Mg, Fe, Al, Mn, Cd, Cr, Cu, Ni, Pb, Zn, As, V, Co, Sn, and Hg).

There is thus intense hydrological surveying for adverse pollutant events, but water quality has remained high throughout, with SEPA reporting on the Dunbeath catchment:

‘The Dunbeath Water catchment contains five water bodies. The Dunbeath Water – Burn of Houstryto sea is at high ecological status. The remaining four are at good status; Dunbeath Water – Raffin Burn to Burn of Houstry, Dunbeath Water – source of Raffin Burn, Raffin Burn and Burn of Houstry. The Dunbeath Water catchment includes the Dunbeath Water Freshwater Fish designated area which is meeting the required standards with respect to the Water Framework Directive.

North Highland Area Management Plan Catchment Summaries. September 2010.



Ownership and Management Structure

The River and its catchment area have been in the single ownership of Dunbeath Estate for many centuries. The Dunbeath Estate, including the river and catchment, is currently owned and managed by Mr and Mrs S.W.M Threipland. During the ownership of the Sinclair, Currie, Blythe and Avery families, Dunbeath Water was used as an adjunct of the general Estate for occasional salmon fishing during the summer months. Netting of salmon was left to the village of Dunbeath on a rental agreement from the Estate. Since coming under Threipland ownership in 1997, the river has received considerable attention and investment, coinciding with dramatic improvements in catch rates from 9 fish in 1997, to 177 in 2012.

Dunbeath Water is a member and part of the Caithness and District Salmon Fishery Board (CDFB, http://caithness.dsfb.org.uk/). CDFB is  in the process of, together with the Northern Board (Halladale and Naver, http://northern.dsfb.org.uk/), initiating a Flow Country Rivers Trust. The FCRT’s role is ‘To advance for public benefit the conservation and enhancement of native freshwater fish (including migratory salmonids) and their environments (to include the flora and fauna proximate to the rivers and stillwaters) primarily but not limited to the inland and coastal waters connected to or forming a part of the ‘Flow Country’ of Caithness and Eastern Sutherland including but not limited to the jurisdictional areas of the Caithness and Northern District Salmon Fishery Boards. This alliance will allow greater critical mass in tackling some of the broader environmental issues that face this unique part of Scotland such as underwater turbines in the Pentland Firth and Wick Offshore Wind Farms etc.

Social and Economic Value

Dunbeath Estate is a working highland estate employing people who are local to the area. A small part of Estate income derives from paying guests who come to Dunbeath to fish for salmon and sea trout, and appreciate and enjoy the undisturbed natural habitat of this spate river. Most guests are confirmed regulars, coming from all over the UK and beyond. In addition to Estate guests, the local Angling Club generates a minor income, but considerable social benefits. The Estate also owns the right to conduct estuary netting, which was pursued quite vigorously until the 1980s with both fixed engine and sweep and cobble nets. The Estate recently purchased a new cobble boat and equipment, and occasionally does some very limited netting (maximum of 100 fish per season), partly to preserve the tradition and the ability to net if the situation required it, but also to harvest a sustainable catch for locals and the Estate.

Ecology of the River and Catchment

The majority of the catchment providing water to the river comes from upland Flow Country, Europe’s largest blanket bog, and lying within the Caithness and Sutherland Peatlands Special Protection Area. This area remains relatively undisturbed by development or human activity, and retains the essential combination of gentle topography, acidic substrates, and cool and humid conditions to allow the development and maintenance of ombrotrophic bog.

At the head of the river are two freshwater lochs with traditional hatches: Loch Dhu and Loch Braec. The lochs reside within a large, generally oligotrophic, drainage system which characterises this part of the northern Highlands. Rainfall run-off and storage feeds the river over and through the blanket bog and peatlands, which sit on generally nutrient-poor substrata. The upland catchment is a conservationally important habitat, not only for the wide areas of important vegetation such as extensive Sphagnum, Erica and Calluna heath, deergrass Trichophorum cespitosum and cottongrass Eriophorum vaginatum blanket mire, but also because it remains relatively undisturbed. The Dunbeath Estate has resisted afforestation and other modern land-use changes, and the upland catchment area is frequented by very visitors who hunt or manage deer and red grouse. This light-touch management and minimal disturbance has proceeded for generations.

As the Dunbeath Water grows, it flows from blanket bog and peatland onto more nutrient-rich lower ground with underlying Old Red Sandstone. Ecology of the surrounding catchment changes to extensive natural woods of hazel and birch, and some lowland grassland managed for grazing. This change to more eutrophic conditions is coupled with a more diverse low-ground biodiversity, supporting apex vertebrate predators such as otter, heron, and goosander, as well as salmonid fish. The lower river supports breeding dippers, and the plan proposes to monitor these as bio-indicators of water quality and aquatic invertebrate abundance.

The Dunbeath Salmon and Fishery

The Dunbeath Water is a typical highland spate river, experiencing a wide range of short-term flow changes depending on rainfall and season. Atlantic salmon are the dominant fish species, with most returning to spawn under 10lb in adult weight. Brown trout also exist throughout the system, and there is a smaller run of anadromous sea trout which historically has comprised less than 10% of the salmon rod catch. Apart from these two keystone fish species, only eels, sticklebacks and flounder are known from the system.

Juvenile habitat for salmon fry and parr exists across most of the system, apart from some deeper, peat-lined oligotrophic pools in the upper reaches with poor feeding, and euryhaline conditions at the harbour. There are no significant impassable barriers, opening up a range of spawning redds depending on seasonal flow.

The life history of Dunbeath salmon involves a spawning window that typically occurs in November. Juveniles then usually spend 2 to 3 years in the river, followed by 1 to 3 years at sea, returning as either grilse or 2 to 3 sea-winter salmon. Average size of grilse since 1997 is 1.89 kg (N=334 records), and salmon 3.45 kg (N=553 records). Depending on flow and water, adults will ascend the system in any month from March to October, with the greatest concentrations of runs in late summer and autumn when spates occur. There was a historic run of bigger 15lb+ spring fish which, like many Highland rivers, has severely dwindled.

Detailed electro-fishing first took place in Dunbeath Water in 2000 by the CDSRB on two sites, but had not been repeated. The Estate therefore commissioned an independent survey, in anticipation of this plan, to be conducted by qualified SFCC personnel.

Centre personnel carried out an electro survey in August 2013 to establish juvenile abundance and structure. Electro-fishing allowed five 10m2 sites to be surveyed in detail using SFCC protocols (Achnaclyh (096,337), Culvid (125,326), Mill Pool (158,299) and two sites on the Houstry Burn, Appendix 2), with another ten sites higher up snap-surveyed for presence-absence by quad bike using an electro-fishing backpack and catch net. Preliminary analyses of two sites (Achnaclyh and Culvid) after SFCC surveys (Appendix 3) revealed average to very high abundance of fry and parr in good condition at the SFCC sites, with 0.3 to 1.4 fry and 0.3 to 0.4 parr per m2, which compares favourably with both local and other Scottish salmon river juvenile habitats. The snap surveys (Appendix 4) revealed an absence of salmon and only trout, as suspected, at high ground sites in the upper tributaries (Altna Saobhaidhe, Alt Dubh), low salmon presence in the Overcraig Burn, and healthy numbers of salmon fry and parr at Altan Learanaich, Alt Conachreag, and in the Wag and Achorn Burns. In addition to salmon and trout, the surveys census other fish species, and monitor for the presence of salmonid hybrids, with 3 recorded in the Houstry Burn and 1 at Culvid in 2013.

Catch records of both rod-caught and netted fish are scant and inconsistent up until 1997, when the current owners started detailed record keeping. The fishing season runs from 11th February to 26th August with an extension for rods until 15th October each year. Catch records are plotted on Figure 1, with a clear and significant rise in fish taken by rods since 1997.

In the last 16 years, a number of inputs have worked to maintain the traditional ecological health of the Dunbeath Water. The costs of management, which include re-instatement of washed-out croys and river bank strengthening, tree management, plus bailiff, survey and hatchery costs, are primarily borne by the Dunbeath Estate. There is a risk of considerable land slippage along the lower reaches, so the river has been physically managed through the use of natural stone croys to periodically slow flow and recreate some 50 historically-named pools along the length of the river. The original three concrete dams, built in 1950’s in the Middle section of the river, also remain. Bank strengthening is implemented when considerable erosion risks appear after major spates.

As well as collecting catch records to inform on seasonal trends and angling sustainability, the bailiff enforces local Angling Club rules. These currently stipulate: fly-only methods; voluntary return of any fish exceeding 9lb in weight and / or coloured fish that are not fresh run; only one fish to be killed in a day; a season that extends from 17th February to 13th October. The bailiff also acts as a key point for reporting biosecurity concerns from those who are on the river, primarily to include monitoring of Gyrodactylis salaris, mink, farmed salmon and any other non-native species.

Recent  Management


The River below Falls Pool / Claire's Pool

Redds above Achnaclyth


For ten years (1998–2008), fry stock was purchased and introduced to the river to aid the depleted natural stock.  The average annual bought fry introduction was 30,000 fed-fry at fingerling stage. These were introduced along the length of the river in batches of around 2,000 to 3,000. It is notable that catch rates have grown in direct association with this restocking.

In 2009 the owners decided to invest in their own small hatchery program, since the old corn Mill adjacent to the lower river (under the A9 bridge) was being renovated into upstairs offices. The basement had its own river water supply and ideal space for hatchery activities. A local hatchery would use native Dunbeath salmon, and allow careful and specific restocking in line with troughs in adult spawning, and act as an important reservoir for eggs and fry in seasons experiencing exceptionally high or low flows.

Stripping Salmon

Fry being taken on to Smolting

Mac Young, a founder of the Angling Club and senior river bailiff, was employed to develop and run the hatchery, with much advice and help from experienced operators on the nearby Helmsdale, Thurso and Wick rivers. The hatchery has restocked native Dunbeath salmon (created from a small catch of broodstock late in the season) at unfed, fed and parr life stages. The fish are restocked in areas known to support salmon, and especially in areas when low numbers of adults were recorded on traditional spawning redds. In 2013, DNA was sampled from all adult broodstock, with a view to genotyping returning fish five years hence, and therefore to evaluate the effectiveness of hatchery restocking to successful returning spawners, as well as beginning a historical genebank for future assessments of genetic variation.

Mac stripping hens

Pouring out the fertiiised eggs

The Mill with the Hatchery behind