I was pleased to read in the Guardian that my old stomping grounds of the Flow Country (see Fighting for Birds, Chapter 2) might be edging towards World Heritage Site status. It’s a bit like when an old friend gets a gong in an honours list – it’s not necessarily that one thinks the gong is that valuable, nor is it always given to the right people, but it’s nice when the right people, and place, get recognition.
I could take you to the scene of the photograph above which is, unless I am mistaken, looking west towards the two Ben Griams and somewhere out of site is Strath Halladale and Forsinard Station. I’ve sometimes, but rarely, seen it on such an attractive day!
Can you list the other UK World Heritage sites? I could do fewer than a handful, quite honestly, and one of those, the Lake District, is only because it is so unworthy of the status being a knackered landscape.
But recognition of the Flow Country would be a good thing – is it really the largest expanse of blanket bog in the world? No wonder I got very fit walking over it in 1986! Let’s recognise it and make sure its carbon is safeguarded for ever.
It would be quite a turnaround in 40 years. The attraction of the Flow Country was, until the 1980s, mainly as a remote area, far from Inverness let alone Edinburgh or London, where you could get away from it all in the rolling peatland landscape which straddles the border of Sutherland and Caithness. Nowhere near as dramatic as the peaks further west, but holding, the cognoscenti would say, its own more subtle attraction.
But in the 1980s the area became a battle ground as it was rather cleverly pounced upon as an unlikely place to make money from forestry. Unlikely, because the Flows aren’t the best places to grow trees, but that didn’t really matter as land was cheap, tax relief was high, grants were forthcoming, and the size of the crop didn’t matter too much. Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nigel Lawson, reformed the tax system in 1989 and most afforestation in the area ground to a halt but not before huge areas had been ploughed with massively impressive machinery for tree planting. I remember sitting on a hump of lichen not that far from where the photograph above was taken and looking at the peat being turned over for the first time ever by massive ploughs towed by caterpillar track tractors and the water running down the new channels. The parallel black lines of exposed peat were said to be sign of progress but they were a sign of ignorance of what was important in life.
Back in the 1980s we would have said that the wading bird populations of the Flows, the high densities of Greenshank, Golden Plover and Dunlin in particular, were what made the place special (with a few nice plants and lots of soggy peat).
Now, we realise that peat is worth something like its weight in gold as a carbon store. That is why this place should have World Heritage status. And if that did arrive then people across the world would raise eyebrows to see the land between Lairg and Thurso and Golspie and Tongue treated on a par with Yellowstone, the Great Barrier Reef and the Western Ghats, and they’d learn a bit about our hidden gem at the top of the British mainland.
Meanwhile, a bit further south, do you remember Miles King’s guest blog here a week ago – click here – about a rather smaller peatland ploughed and planted with trees with Forestry Commission approval?
That blog seems to have caused red faces in Forestry Commission and DEFRA see this piece in the Daily Telegraph:
Film cameras are reported to have been in the area…
And to bring this post full circle…