Blanket bog - it's a pain to walk on, but it represents one of our last remaining more or less natural ecosystems. It stores a vast amount of carbon too, more than all the trees in Britain; but it only works where we've not mucked things up with forestry and access tracks. Now seven square miles of fragile peatlands in Caithness & Sutherland may be restored after the project passed the first stage of its application for £4m of Lottery funding.
The Heritage Lottery Fund's (HLF) announcement today of a 'first round pass' means a grant of £147,000 development funding for the bid, which seeks to restore Europe's largest intact expanse of blanket bog.
RSPB Scotland, one of the organisations behind the project, welcomed the news, which it said brought one of the most significant contributions to the UK's climate change targets a step closer.
'Flow to the Future' is an ambitious plan, co-ordinated by the Peatlands Partnership, to restore seven square miles of globally important peatlands in Scotland's Flow Country. It's hoped this will dramatically improve the habitats for many rare plants and species such as otters, hen harriers and golden plovers, while also playing a critical role in the fight against climate change.
The peatlands of the Flow Country stem from the damp, cool conditions that have encouraged the growth of sphagnum moss and cotton grasses since the last Ice Age over 10,000 years ago, explain the RSPB. The partially-decayed plants have slowly formed layers of peat - in places many metres deep.
This ancient environment is a repository for vast amounts of carbon locked into the peat. An estimated 400 million tonnes of carbon is stored in the Flow Country; double the amount of carbon in all the UK's forests. One of the last great wildernesses left in the UK, according to the RSPB, the Flow Country has been put forward by the UK Government as a potential UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The area seems wild, but this is a degraded environment.
After remaining largely untouched for millennia, the area underwent a massive change in the 1970's and 80's when tax breaks encouraged the planting of non-native conifer trees and deep forestry ploughing in an attempt to make the land more productive. As a result huge areas of blanket bog have been damaged or are eroding with devastating effect. Bog plants have been lost, rare bird species have seriously declined, and carbon is now being emitted rather than absorbed and stored. A loss of only 5% of the carbon stored in peat would equate to the UK's total annual green house gas emissions, it is claimed.
Colin McLean, Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund in Scotland, said:
'The Flow Country is an area of exceptional natural heritage merit. Over 8,000 years of the history of plants, weather and people lie preserved in its layers of peat. Yet this living landscape is as important to our future as it is to our heritage. We are delighted to be able to give our initial support to a project which will reverse the damage of earlier forestry planting, while we still can, and make an important contribution to the global climate change agenda.'
The UK is a world-leader in peat restoration - some of it developed in the Flows - and this expertise will be used during this five-year landscape-scale project to restore the blanket bog.
A new field centre is planned at the RSPB's Forsinard Flows nature reserve. The reserve, the RSPB's largest, has been at the centre of peatland restoration work for 16 years. Volunteers, PhD, MSc, and BSc students from across the world, working alongside RSPB staff, will have the opportunity to train in monitoring and evaluation work and contribute to what the RSPB hope will be an emerging centre of excellence in peatland ecology, hydrology and carbon capture. It is estimated that there will be nearly 6000 volunteer days delivered through the project.
Those behind the project promise a step-change too in communicating the importance of this threatened landscape, so that the Flows become a key symbol for public engagement with this globally-important subject.
Inevitably perhaps, the current visitor centre at Forsinard Railway Station will be improved to provide an 'interpretative gateway' with 'engaging and interactive exhibits' which project organisers say will encourage people to enjoy the landscape and its wildlife. New technologies and a mobile exhibition will bring the story of the peatlands to those that cannot visit.
John Henderson, Chairman of the Peatlands Partnership, commented:
'We're delighted that we have cleared this all important first hurdle and that the Heritage Lottery Fund recognises the potential of what can be achieved in this landscape. The Flow Country is a truly special area, a valuable store for carbon, a haven for birds and animals and remarkably beautiful. Its future protection and conservation is essential if we want to reduce the devastating impacts of climate change.'
The Peatlands Partnership comprises RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Forestry Commission Scotland and Highland Council, as well as key stakeholders and individuals from the local community.