Getting the flow back
The Flow Country. Have you heard of it? It is the largest bog in the world. And it's right here in Scotland.
Wetland regeneration is a big issue in Scotland. Conservation of Scottish wetland is essential to healthy water and wildlife. Scotland is doing quite well – 65% of Scotland’s bodies of water are currently described as ‘good’ or ‘better’, compared to only 27% in England (come on England). But there is no room for complacency.
Wetlands are areas of Scotland where poor soil, cold temperatures and high rainfall cause the ground to become either regularly or permanently water logged. These can be peatlands, salt marshes, swamps and fens, wet grassland or blanket bog. Scotland boasts the largest area of blanket bog in the world, 4000 square kilometers of it, called the Flow Country, a breathtaking undulating expanse of peatland and groundwater-fed fen covering much of Caithness and Sutherland and stretching as far north as Thurso. In the middle of this lies Forsinard Flows RSPB Nature Reserve.
In the seventies a large swathe of Flow Country, like many wetlands, was drained to plant non-native conifers by the Forestry Commission, but this brought problems that the benefit of hindsight put sharply into focus. Wetlands are valuable floodplains, soaking up rainwater and storing it so less of it overflows into urban areas. But that is not all they can do. Here are some of the many benefits of wetland:
Peat is partly decomposed plant matter, largely sphagnum mosses, and is always formed in water logged conditions. This process captures a massive quantity of carbon. Draining peatlands releases this carbon into the atmosphere which contributes to greenhouse gases. There are about 3000 million tonnes of carbon captured in Scottish peatlands. It needs to stay there, which means they need to stay waterlogged. Peat covers about 3% of the Earth’s surface, but is estimated by scientists to contain around twice the amount of carbon contained in all the world’s forests combined. Peat stores clean water and supports an incredible array of wildlife. In times past it was used as fuel.
Wetlands are an efficient method of natural water purification. As they frequently form between land and a body of water, they prevent pollutants, especially from agriculture from reaching lochs and rivers. All of our drinking water has at some time passed through a wetland, and the more it can be purified in this natural way the cheaper it is to redeploy into the system without the added cost of purifying treatments.
Wetlands store the ground water produced by natural springs in a manner which both replenishes the water table with fresh drinkable water, and vitally supports a vast array of wildlife, both fauna and flora. At Forsinard Flows Nature Reserve you will see otherwise rare birds such as golden plover, hen harrier, greenshank, wheatear and merlin to name a few. They also provide a natural habitat for red and roe deer, otters and beavers, and give a home to a wide range of sphagnum mosses that store water and create peat, which in turn supports ericaceous plants like cross-leaved heath, tussock sedge, marsh orchids, and a variety of carnivorous, insect-eating plants like sundew and common butterwort.
The RSBP and other land management organisations are working to undo the damage of former policies, by blocking drainage ditches, removing the tree plantations and restoring the water table in areas where it has dried out. This is bringing back the wildlife previously in decline. As well as birds, mammals and plants a host of amphibians and invertebrates live in the bogs of the Flow Country, and contribute to the wealth of diversity you can see there. Lessons learned at Forsinard about the contribution peat bogs make to our natural wealth are being put into practice elsewhere.
It’s well worth a visit if you are intrepid enough to go that far north! There are trails and walks, magnificent views and sights of historical interest like the unusual 36-stone horseshoe, Achavanich, near Loch Semster in Caithness, erected by our ancestors 5000 years ago. If you want to get even more involved you can volunteer. Find out more at Flows For the Future