30 March 2015

Scotland - The Flow Country

Going with The Flows


I sleep through the Northern Lights. Aurora Borealis flickers in my dreams, but, unlike the tawny owl that hoots from the nearby signal box, my eyes are shut.

Travelling North in Sutherland focuses the mind.  The A836 from Lairg narrows, becoming single track from Altnaharra to Tongue. The A897 is pretty much single track from Helmsdale to where it joins the Northern Highway near Melvich.  

As you proceed you become aware that, despite the seeming emptiness around, you are being watched.  Buzzards clock you from fence posts and treetops.  Deer peer at you from the tundra-like wastes. Pairs of eyes – pine martens?  Foxes? Maybe wildcat? -  track you from the forests.  Little brown birds flit about, as if they didn't have a care in the world, but part of the avian internet, tweeting your approach and passage.....  I am reminded of a "Mad" magazine cartoon of a man driving across a desert in the United States, vultures slowly flapping behind as his Petrol gauge shows empty.  A couple of frames later the driver is sitting by the roadside while the vultures carve the car up with their knives and forks.......

Travelling North means the sun is behind you.  It means you are approaching dark.  It means you are uphilling all the time, as the psychology of maps determines your direction. And the sun, the giver of life, comes and goes up here with awesome power: in winter, Apollo hardly gets out of bed; in summer, he hardly sleeps; in Spring and Autumn he comes and goes with cloudy brooding, sometimes slamming the door in a sudden gust of anger.  And then sometimes, just when you think he’s deep in slumber, he will flare up in the darkest hours, and gleam across the sky in greens and curtains of fire – especially when I am fast asleep…..

And travelling North in Sutherland means that you are about to fall off the edge.  There is no more.  Lairg to Tongue.  Helmsdale to Melvich.  Lybster to Thurso.  Ends of the line.  Deer to seal.  Trout to eel.  Otter to otter.  Peat to kelp.  The ends are option less.

And on the way are straths (not glens) and The Flow Country.  Wet patches of land and not land.  Blanket bog.  Ombrotrophic bog.  Clumps of hare’s tail cottongrass.  Eriophorum vaginatum.  Conifer plantations.  Heath-clad hills and then sphagnum moss living bog.  Then river bed, then lochs, then lochans, then blanket bog.  Sphagna everywhere. 

The Flow Country got its name in the 1950s, when Nature Conservancy surveyors dubbed it thus, using an old norse term for flat, deep, wet bog (and related to Scapa Flow; ice floes [Old Norse flō- layer: flōa – to flood]).  Caithness is jealous of its Norse heritage, and some here resent the Gallicisation of Scotland, preferring to be thought Vikings rather than Celts – but, hey! We are all immigrants of some kind; snowflakes on the ice cap…..

Just where the Inverness to Thurso railway intersects the A897 is my destination for the next two weeks.  Apart from Forsinard station there's little there.  A handful of buildings, the immature Halladale river.....  Though, quietly,  this is the nerve centre of a complex of interests which between them are seeking to re-establish one of the greatest repositories of stored carbon in the world.

I may exaggerate.  I am no scientist.  But the Caithness and Sutherland Flow Country (covering approximately 1,500 square miles) represents about 5% of the world's blanket bog (10% of the UK’s reserves); a natural resource that stores carbon – in this area alone about 400 million tonnes.

Without the bog, carbon would be released into the atmosphere.....  This is where the Flow to the Future Project is based, in conjunction with the RSPB.  In addition The Peatlands Partnership has been in existence for a number of years and they endorsed the project, played an important part in getting it off the ground and continue to support it as a partner.  The Peatlands Partnership includes Scottish Natural Heritage, Forestry Commission (Scotland), Highland Council, RSPB Scotland, Plantlife International and The Environmental Research Institute and it liaises with local community groups, Highlands & Islands Enterprise, the Scottish Government’s Rural Payments and Inspections Directorate and the North Sutherland Community Forest Trust. 

Flow to the Future is a is an 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 nature 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 the peat, in turn helping many rare plants and animals such as sundew, butterwort, otters, hen harriers and golden plovers which make this area their home.  In 2014 the project was given full grant approval of more than £4million from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and additional funding from multiple partnership sources will inject a total of £9.6million of investment into the project, bringing many additional benefits to local businesses in the area.

This is all heady stuff, and unfortunately my head is full of cold. Stepping out into the bog, adrift on a sea of sphagna, I am stuffed with sweeping landscapes and cloudy air. Deer sniff at me and flee.  I catch sneezing glimpses of Hen Harriers hunting.  I probe peat, sometimes to a depth of almost seven metres (it “grows” at about a millimetre every year, under suitable conditions).

Here the landscape was prepared by the last ice age, then slowly the mosses began their cycle of life, and death.  For blanket bog development an annual precipitation of 1000mm is required, but it also needs a minimum of 160 wet days (a ‘wet’ day is defined as 24 hrs with a minimum of 1mm precipitation) and an annual mean temperature for the warmest months in the 9º - 15ºC range, with relatively low seasonal fluctuation.

Because of the acidity that builds up in the bog, the sphagnum mosses do not completely rot, but the decaying matter accumulates to form an inactive substratum called catotelm peat, on which the active surface peat (acrotelm) floats, or flows….. One interesting fact I picked up is that there are fewer solids in a peat bog than in the same volume of milk….

In this cool and wet climate, one of the features of the Flow Country is the dubh lochain, a maze of peat lochans, or little lakes.  Some of these support fish, and also form ideal habitats for wading and water birds, so in the breeding season you may see golden plover, greenshank, black-throated divers and common scoter…..

It is not yet the breeding season, and so I see none of the above, but flounder in the mire, and stumble across the brash (broken remnants of felled forestry).  In the 1980s, attracted by government encouragement and tax breaks, landowners here ploughed the peat into giant furrows, and planted non-native conifers.  Now the project is to remove as much of these as possible, as they have dried out and destroyed the peat, and their close cover has provided protection for predators, such as foxes and pine martens, and scared the nesting birds for at least several hundred metres from their shade….

Even clearing a small area involves major effort.  It’s all very well to imagine that the wood can be removed and sold, but that means machinery and trucks and men and time.  Then there’s the brash – the stripped branches – which have no value.  In some cases these are mulched, but in others they are mashed down into the furrows by caterpillar diggers.  And there are the roots…..

To encourage mosses to recolonise the felled areas, pools have to be created, and streams need to be controlled.  Without control much of the old peat and soil from the felling sites would clog the rivers, damage fish stock, and eventually end up in the sea.  So the RSPB have been putting in dams and silt traps - thousands of them.

This work benefits the local economy by providing jobs and income for contractors.

As one of the biggest projects in the UK to combat climate change the Flow to the Future campaign is of great importance, and with the side effect of attracting thousands of visitors to the area who need to eat and sleep and travel and who want to learn, the project has to be beneficial on many fronts.  

During my brief stay in this wild expanse of ancient nature, the gods are agitated.  We huddle together in awe as the sun disappears, and the day darkens.  Is it a warning?  It seems to me that Apollo is frowning but, as the moon slides by to restore the day, the message is clear – restore the environment!  Undo the interference and celebrate the joys of never-ending, gently undulating, far flowing, blanket bog!

I slept through the Northern Lights, but perhaps the eclipse has opened my eyes?  I will go with the flows…..

1 comment:

  1. Love it! Really nicely written, great pics too. Despite having spent over 5 years living here and working on the very project that you describe, Richard, I have to say that you have opened my eyes to see just how much more magical this place is - I will appreciate it more, so thank you for that! You should come back in summer and do another article, when all that wildlife you mention, plus the horseflies, midges and ticks, are abundant. You'll get plenty written, because the long days you mention mean that sleeping is difficult. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings about a place that few have really experienced - others are missing out!