FOUR million oysters are to make their homes in a reef fished to extinction more than 100 years ago.

The mollusc’s population in the Dornoch Firth is expected to hit six figures within five years as environmentalists bring the dead reefs back to life.

From this month, 20,000 UK-grown native oysters will be placed on the first of new beds specially created from waste shell to mimic their natural habitat.

READ MORE: Stranraer Oyster Festival celebrates Scots produce as industry eyes expansion

All will be cleaned and checked for disease and “unwanted hitchhikers” before being put in place.

If successful, numbers will be increased to 200,000 over three years and reach 4m over 40 hectares by 2023.

The move aims to restore the self-sustaining reefs present in the firth until falling victim to overfishing in the 1800s.

The project – which has never been attempted in Europe before – is the work of the Dornoch Environmental Enhancement Project (DEEP), a partnership between Heriot-Watt University, the Marine Conservation Society and whisky firm Glenmorangie.

It follows promising trials with just 300 oysters in the Highland waters last year.

Organisers hope that reefs in the firth will increase biodiversity and act in tandem with Glenmorangie’s anaerobic digestion plant to purify the seas.

The National:

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. Working closely with Glenmorangie, 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.”

One of Scotland’s 40 officially designated national scenic areas, the Dornoch Firth also has European Special Protection Area status as a result of its importance for birdlife.

In its bid to boost biodiversity under the waters, DEEP will use 20 tonnes of waste scallop and mussel shell to mimic their natural habitat. Monitoring will take place every six months and the 2017 tests, which involved wild oysters from Loch Ryan, resulted in survival rates of around 90%.

The species had thrived in the firth for 10,000 years until human industry wiped it out in the 19th century.

The shell waste will be put in place this month, with the first 20,000 molluscs introduced between now and the spring.

Glenmorangie’s Tain distillery overlooks the waters.

Commenting, the company’s Hamish Torrie 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.

“We are all very proud that in our 175th year the distillery has such a pioneering environmental project right on its doorstep.”