A bleak sort of beauty

Bogs have never fared well in the popular imagination: phrases such as “bog standard”, “wet blanket” and “wallow in the mire” say it all. Certainly the moody ambience in Scotland’s Flow Country, the world’s largest remaining blanket bog, can make Yorkshire’s Brontë country seem positively cheery. But there’s also poetry in peat.

Deep in the interior of Sutherland and Caithness, “the Flows” form a widescreen panorama of silvery pools, scrubby grasses and muted colours, framed by low dark hills and enormous skies – nature’s version of austerity Britain. This is 1,500 square miles of magnificent desolation, and a striking example of how stark vistas can trump postcard prettiness. And yet the bogs may be about to shed their gloomy image for a more glamorous role.

Peatlands are fast becoming the new rainforests in the eyes of environmentalists. Scientists have compared the Flow Country to the Amazon, such is its value in slowing global warming (peat absorbs carbon gases). The area is on the British government’s shortlist of sites to be submitted to Unesco for recognition as a World Heritage site, while other bogs across the country are also being restored.

Earlier this year, the Peatlands Partnership, an umbrella group of naturalist organisations, announced its bid for a multimillion-pound grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to help return the Flow Country to its pure, primitive state.

It is a mammoth task. During the 1980s, forestry companies drained a sixth of the Flows – about 160,000 acres – and planted them with non-native conifer plantations for timber. The planting boom was fuelled by a tax loophole which allowed investment in woodland to be written off against personal income tax. As a result, the haunting, primeval landscape is now blighted by industrial patches of sitka spruce and lodgepole pine.

“They look completely artificial,” says Norrie Russell, site manager for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds at its 50,000-acre reserve in Forsinard, a lonely hamlet 80 miles north of Inverness. “They have straight edges in an otherwise organic landscape. They’re very dense, whereas the bog is open. They just jar.”

And not only visually. The effect on the local flora and fauna has been devastating, and conservationists are also worried about the bigger picture. The Peatlands Partnership estimate the Flows store 400m tonnes of carbon (twice the amount of Britain’s forests) in six-metre deep layers of peat that date back 8,000 years. But when peatlands are disturbed, they leak greenhouse gases – according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Britain’s damaged bogs expel about 3.7m tonnes a year, equal to the annual emissions of 660,000 UK households. The Peatlands Partnership aims to restore two-thirds of the forested areas in a project that will take five years.

Some of the damage has already been repaired. At the Forsinard Reserve, conservationists have spent £2.8m clearing 5,000 acres of forest in the past decade, and the bogs are gradually bouncing back. On a spring afternoon, as I wander the four miles of nature trails that wind languidly around pools, the land is teeming with life. The muddy greens are speckled with pink flowers from the bogbean, feathery white cotton grass, and spiky, scarlet sundew plants – the Flows’ answer to the Venus flytrap. The stillness is punctuated by the sound of rustling grasses and the mournful cries of the golden plovers and curlew. Dragonflies and whirligig beetles skate on the lakes’ shimmering surfaces. More elusive are otters, water voles and wildcats, but they are out there somewhere.

Also out there – or up there – are hen harriers, whose majestic swoops are one of the great spectacles of spring. In autumn red deer stags roar and rut in the hills, eagles soar on thermals and the ground changes colour as the mosses morph into a carpet of red, gold and green.

It’s a bleak sort of beauty, but the vast, empty vistas stir the soul. This is one of Britain’s last true wildernesses and yet few people have heard of it. That may be down to location: it’s almost as close to Iceland as it is to London, and reached via a sleepy branch railway line from Inverness to Wick (at Forsinard station, there is a simple, homely visitor centre and small hotel). But the biggest problem goes back to perception: bogs just don’t sound romantic.

That could soon change. If the Peatlands Partnership is successful – it should learn the results of its initial application next month – and Unesco glory follows, Forsinard could be rebranded as Britain’s Everglades, or a squelchy Scottish Sahara. “It’s like a desert landscape, very harsh and simplified,” says site manager Russell. “But that is its appeal.”

The RSPB Forsinard Flows Reserve (www.rspb.org.uk) is open April to October, with guided walks available

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