When glaciers retreated after the last Ice Age, the persistent cool and wet Scottish weather created the perfect conditions for a very special place to form. Today, as the low-lying winter sun breaks through the clouds, a warm glow illuminates the undulating land and lifts the mist. The apparent dull, brown colour turns golden for an instant, and the surface of dozens of scattered dubh lochans shimmers softly. The landscape seems to go on as far as the eye can see under wide skies. From it, the burns, streams and rivers fill with freshwater where salmon spawns and otters play. We are in the North of Scotland, and this is the Flow Country, a large rolling expanse of peatland and wetland in Caithness and Sutherland.
The University of the Highlands and Islands’ Environmental Research Institute (ERI) co-ordinates and leads all the scientific research on peatlands in the Flow Country, with over 20 projects involving researchers from all over the UK. From small carabid beetles to large-scale ground motion patterns, from carbon stocks to water quality, from DNA to satellite, the ERI’s research provides the underpinning evidence needed to understand and protect the Flow Country for what it really is: a natural wonder of this world.
But other than this wild, raw beauty, why is the Flow Country so special?
The range of conditions and landforms found between the mountains in the west of Sutherland and the coast in Caithness has allowed distinct forms of peatland to develop, each with distinctive surface patterns and highly specialised vegetation communities, rich in Sphagnum mosses. As well as plants, unique assemblages of micro-organisms, invertebrates, birds and mammals also depend on the Flow Country to survive, which makes it a biodiversity stronghold.
In the Flow Country, Sphagnum mosses, along with cotton grass and shrubs have grown slowly for thousands of years, but have decayed even slower, and over time, this allows peat – the partially decomposed remains of plants – to accumulate. In the Flow Country, peat has cloaked over about 400,000 ha and in places, to depths of more than 6.5 meters, making it the largest peatland of its kind in Europe and possibly the world. In this peat, the Flow Country holds an estimated 400 Mt of Carbon – this nearly twice as much as in all the woodlands and forests of Great Britain.
As well as carbon and plant remains, the wet, acidic and cold conditions in the peat have preserved archaeological artefacts, charcoal, pollen grains, and tephras – microscopic volcanic ash shards. In fact, to those who can read it, peat is like a history book that has documented thousands of years of climate and human activity.
Much like the rest of our peatlands in the UK, the Flow Country has endured thousands of years of human activities, from cutting to grazing to burning. In the 1980s, controversial afforestation took place over 67,000 ha in the Flow Country fuelled by a tax-intensive scheme. All these disturbances disrupt the delicate balance that allows peatland to exist, and threatens the unique species as well as the vast stocks of carbon stored in the peat. Following changes in legislation and the recognition of the values of peatlands, there are more and more attempts to reverse those changes and restore the peatlands, in the Flow Country and more widely in the UK.
By Dr Roxane Andersen is Senior Research Fellow and Co-ordinator of the Flow Country Research Hub based at the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Environmental Research Institute.
The Flow Country Exhibition takes place in the Atrium and Second Floor Foyer at Inverness College UHI from Saturday 12th January to Friday 25th January. Fore more information visit: www.theflowcountry.org.uk/