Go with the Flows

Typical Flow Country in spring at the RSPB's Forsinard reserve. Photo: Andy Hay (www.rspb-images.com).
Typical Flow Country in spring at the RSPB's Forsinard reserve. Photo: Andy Hay (www.rspb-images.com).
The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) has given full approval to a multi-million pound investment to preserve habitats in Scotland's Flow country.

The £9.6 million pound project will make one of the most significant contributions to the UK’s climate change targets, and has today been given full grant approval of more than £4 million from the HLF.

The ‘Flow to the Future’ project, co-ordinated by the Peatlands Partnership, is a hugely ambitious plan to protect and restore seven square miles of one of Europe’s largest expanses of blanket bog in Caithness and Sutherland. It will also develop a visitor and education facility close to the RSPB’s Forsinard Flows reserve, allowing the public and research students to see and monitor the improvements to the blanket bog that will benefit from the restoration work. The bog repair aims to bring back the sphagnum mosses that create peat, in turn helping many rare plants and animals such as sundew, butterwort, European Otter, Hen Harrier and European Golden Plover, which live in the region.

Additional funding from multiple partnership sources including Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) will inject a total of £9.6 million of investment into the project, bringing many additional benefits to local businesses in the area.

One of the last remaining extensive areas of wild land in the country, the ancient environment of the Flow Country is a repository for vast amounts of carbon – an estimated 400 million tonnes are locked into the peat, more than double the amount of carbon in all of Britain's forests.

After remaining largely untouched for millennia, the area underwent a massive change from 1979 to 1987 with the planting of thousands of hectares of non-native conifers and deep forestry ploughing. Huge areas of blanket bog were damaged and began eroding, consequently causing a massive loss of bog plants and birds, and millions of tonnes of carbon being emitted rather than stored, as the peat dried out and was dug up and either destroyed or sold. While the ploughing up of the peat temporarily relieved local unemployment, the main purpose of the forestry was to provide tax relief for wealthy investors.

In 1988, then-Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson reversed his own government's policy and stopped the scheme when the amount of damage being done was finally realised. The RSPB now own almost 13 square miles of the Flow Country, which includes Forsinard. Ironically, it was Scots' anger at the stopping of the forestry scheme by the UK-wide Nature Conservancy Council that led to the formation of SNH to manage Scotland's environmental issues internally. More recently, the RSPB and SNH loudly objected to proposals for a huge wind farm to be sited in the Flows.

The UK is a world leader in peatland restoration – with some of the pioneering techniques actually developed in the Flows – and this expertise will be used during the five-year landscape scale project to restore the globally important blanket bog. A new field centre will be located at Forsinard Flows RSPB, already a focus of peatland restoration for the past 16 years.

This will be a first for the UK, and we hope it will bring student volunteers to work alongside RSPB and SNH staff. Such visitors will have the opportunity to train in restoration and monitoring techniques, and contribute to this emerging centre of excellence in peatland ecology, hydrology and carbon capture, collaborating with the Environmental Research Institute and other academic institutions in the UK.

Stuart Housden, director of RSPB Scotland, said: “I am thrilled at this very significant award, which confirms the international importance of the Flow Country and our collective duty to conserve it. HLF’s approval of this grant will allow Scotland to become a showcase for peatland restoration at a time when many countries are waking up to the fact that the loss of wildlife and carbon from peatlands is an urgent crisis that needs to be addressed. A new generation of scientists with the practical knowledge to help face up to this challenge will be trained here in the Flows.”

Colin McLean, Head of the HLF in Scotland, said: “In terms of contribution to the UK’s climate change targets, this is the most important project that HLF has funded. The Flow Country is an area of exceptional natural heritage which, with its ability to store carbon, is as important to our future as it is to our past. With our support, the Peatlands Partnership can now restore this threatened, ancient landscape, protecting its native species while playing a critical role in the fight against climate change.”