The Flow Country

In the far north of Scotland, beyond the traditional northern scenery of mountains and glens lies that mysterious place called the Flow Country.

Into the Flow Country
Caithness and Sutherland are far beyond where most tourists reach, and the few that do get to this part of the world are usually on their way to John O’Groats.  The landscape here has always been forbidding but without the grandeur of the mountains in the south.  There are few roads across the Flow Country, and those that do exist are single track with occasional passing places.  There is one railway line (The Far North Line was listed for axing by Beeching, but eventually reprieved) that threads it’s way North from Inverness across the moor lands until it reaches Wick and Thurso - just occasionally connecting up with the roads.

Trackside on the Far North Line

The Flow Country covers over 1500 square miles of blanket bog up to 5 metres deep that has been building since Scotland was last covered with ice.  Over the time the blanket bogs have been developing in Sutherland, the Romans and Vikings have both come and gone, and bears and wolves have both disappeared from Scotland.

The recent history of the area hasn’t been uneventful either.  

In the 19th Century Sutherland was one of the most dramatic sites for the Highland Clearances - the shameful episode where landowners evicted huge number of residents so that they could expand their sheep farming interests and later their sporting estates too.  

Watchful deer

In the 20th Century the Flow Country suffered further attack from the forestry industry which drained great swathes of the country to make it more suitable for industrial scale tree growing.   

Clearing Forests
Evidence for both of these ‘transformations’ are still obvious.  

There are over-grazed moorlands with big herds of deer - the evidence for over-grazing most dramatic when you see lochs with islands.  The vegetation on the islands is the clearest indication of what the surrounding land would look like given the opportunity.

Tree covered Islands
There are still dense sterile pine plantations in many places - the close-packed trees might result in straight trunks, but completely exclude any other plants, birds or animals. And worse to allow the trees to grow on what was wet bog, lots of drainage networks needed to be dug to lower the water table and as a consequence, completely undermine the layers of peat.

These forestry activities have now been hugely scaled back - and the remaining forests are gradually being cleared, and the drains blocked to allow the water levels to rise again. Already there are indication that the landscape in recovering and the bird life is starting to return.

Lochan Dubh, RSPB Forsinard Flows
In the heart of the Flow Country is the RSPB Forsinard Flows visitor centre.  The visitor centre is on the platform of the little station at Forsinard, and close to one of the little lochans that are typical of much of the Flow Country landscape.  

Forsinard Station
This year there is also a new viewing tower on the reserve, which lets you get a rather better perspective on the landscape than is possible from ground level. There are also plans afoot to establish a Field Centre on the reserve to allow researchers to spend time based on the reserve to better understand how the ecosystem there works and to be able to showcase that work to visitors.  

RSPB Forsinard, Viewing Tower
It would be wonderful if, as the wet land in the Flow Country recovers, there was also a route by which the over-grazing could be wound back to let some of the other parts of the Flow Country recover too.  
Across RSPB Forsinard
The Clearances in the 19th Century flushed people out to make space for sheep and eventually deer, a 21st Century version of the Clearances could push out some of the hunting stock and allow the native species such as wildcat and lynx to be reintroduced, and perhaps even one day with bears and wolves joining them.

The Flow Country is a special place, I hope the development work will not only restore the damage of the last 50 years, but also the longer term ecosystem damage from the last 200 years.

I’ve been fortunate to have had the chance to spend a bit of time visiting the Flow Country over a couple of summers - I’m looking forward to being able to see what the country looks like in winter too.

Northern Scotland June 2015

Another month, another visit to the Cairngorms National Park, with the added bonus of a few days in Sutherland and the extra added bonus of a couple of days in an Inverness hospital.

As I've been doing the various iterations of the Lairig Ghru walk this year (the plan being to do the same walk each month during 2015) I've been saying that while I'll stick to hotels during the winter I'll revert to camping once the weather improves. Once it gets to June (even in Scotland) it's hard to say this with a straight face and book in to an hotel - so for this first time this year the tent was broken out.

And, perhaps surprisingly, the Scottish weather co-operated - I got to spend a couple of dry nights camping and a couple of downright hot days in the mountains.  It was about six weeks since the last walk, and the seasons had clearly moved on.  There was much more bird life visible (and audible) below the tree line, although there were fewer grouse making their presence felt higher up.  The gorse was in flower, and there were lots more insects around (including the legendary scottish midge). The snow banks that were still very obvious in early May have mostly disappeared except in a few protected gullies.

June at the Pools of Dee at the top of the Lairig Ghru
The lower level walking in the forest was very easy, but higher up the boulder fields were pretty attritional under the bright Scottish sun.  Early in the year the boulder fields are covered with snow and offer pretty simple walking, in June there is no alternative to scrambling through, between and over the boulders.  The way-marking cairns high up on the Lairig Ghru are often pretty much impossible to spot until you've passed them.  My only consolation was watching a couple of mountain bikers struggling through the boulder field - they needed to do the same boulder-to-boulder dance I was doing while carrying bikes.

After two days of sunshine (often referred to the Scottish summer) weather reverted to type. The cloud base dropped to Loch an Eilein level, and now that my tent was throughly soaked I decided to pack it up and move on to the second target for this trip.

June at Loch an Eilein, Rothiemurchus Forest
A couple of years ago I'd driven up through the Flow Country in Sutherland en route to Orkney, and have been saying that it deserved a longer visit. This time I arranged to spend several days around both the Flow Country and the north coast of Sutherland.  There have been changes around RSPB reserve at Forsinard since my last visit - the hotel appears to be permanently closed, there is a lovely new viewing tower on the reserve and pretty much every house in the village appears to have an anti-RSPB sign. I don't (yet) understand where the disagreement lies between the RSPB and the locals.   There are also quite a lot of areas around the Flow Country where there appears to be industrial-scale forest clearance underway. I'm hopeful that this is all part of the programme to restore the peat lands there were damaged by large scale drainage and tree planting in the 1970s and 80s, but on the ground it's not always clear quite what's going on.

Lochan Dubh, RSPB Forsinard
New viewing tower, RSPB Forsinard
After a couple of days exploring the Flow Country, I spent a bit of time on the north Sutherland coast - area I've not visited for over 40 years. There are some wonderful beaches along this bit of coast - and, even in the summer, not very many people visiting them.

Ceannebeinne Beach, Sutherland

If you get a chance to visit here, you should also stop off at the Smoo Caves - a dramatic little series of caverns!

Smoo Caves, Sutherland

And the hospital visit? I decided to ignore an ear infection on the assumption that it would sort itself out.  A GP in Ullapool told me that I'd got to a state where some intravenous antibiotics were needed - so if you ever wind up in Inverness, the Raigmore Hospital is highly recommended.  Although I'm hoping to avoid needing a repeat visit next time I'm in the north of Scotland.

Rewilding Britain

I saw today that Rewilding Britain is starting to become visible, and is looking for a first Director.

This is a new charity being established in the UK, to give nature the chance to reclaim at least part of the country.

I've heard chatterings about this for a couple of years and I am both excited and delighted to see this initiative finally getting off the ground.  The vision brochure that accompanies the job advert is inspiring.  It paints a picture of a Britain where we might one day see a wilder side to life all over the country.

So often I feel that the country around us has been beaten into submission by years (and generations and centuries) of over exploitation.  It's time to think a bit harder about this over exploitation and to do something about it.

I'd love one day to be able to walk through a restored forest with just the glimmer of a hope that the rustle in the undergrowth nearby might be a wildcat or lynx.

I'd love one day to walk along a natural river bank with the hope that the ripple in the water might be an otter or beaver stalking it's patch, and to know that the bird song in the spring isn't that of a species tottering on the edge of extinction, but is part of a thriving local natural ecosystem.

I'd love one day soon to stop having to explain to people what rewilding is, simply because it's now part of everyday life in every part of the country.  This month I'm taking part in the Wildlife Trust initiative to encourage us all to do something wild everyday in June.  I'm one of ten thousand people who've said they want to go wild in June - next year I'd like to see 100,000 getting involved.

The reality is that it's going to be an uphill struggle to get rewilding into the mainstream, there are going to be many vested interests talking the initiative down.  And the results won't be instant either. We might well see some changes in the short term, but most of us won't see the bigger changes, but we will at least have the comfort that we gave the changes a chance to happen.

I hope you're going to support the project, I certainly am.

The vision brochure I mentioned is on the Friends of the Earth website - read it, share it.  I'm sure we're going to be seeing and hearing a lot more about this project in the next few years.

Cairngorms May 2015

The story so far.  The plan is to walk from Loch an Eilein, up into the Lairig Ghru each month during 2015.

In January, fabulous clear blue skies, but was eventually forced to retreat by thigh-deep soft snow.

In Febuary, still sunny but had to turn back when the wind through the Lairig Ghru was lifting me off my feet.

In March, glorious still weather meant I was able to get right up to the top of the Lairig Ghru where I could see the Pools of Dee, even if they were still covered with snow.

In April, more sunshine and fast disappearing snow meant that I again got to top of the Lairig Ghru.

So surely my luck would hold and I'd get another bright sunny day in May for my once-a-month walk?

The weather luck runs out, Lairig Ghru

But, to look on the bright side, the object of the project is to record how Rothiemurchus Forest and the Lairig Ghru changes through the year.

On the May walk, one of the most notable changes was that the green gets ever more intense both on the trees and on the ground too (the rain has certainly helped the mosses and ferns to come on).

Getting Greener

The other dramatic change was in how the forest and paths are being used.

Early in the year cross-country skis (and even on occasion snow shoes) were in evidence, gradually being replaced by walking boots.  In May, it felt like the transport of choice was the mountain bike - even if on occasions the most effective way forward was to walk or carry the bike. I might have passed quite a lot of bikes on the upward bits of the path, but they certainly outpaced me on the downhill sections.

Biker passing the last tree

I don't mind walking in the rain or the wind, but there is a point when in combination they make things feel a bit bleak, so at the point when both I and the camera were feeling a bit too soaked I decided to turn back to spend more time down in forest and around Loch an Eilein.

The ford at NH 967 025 - Turning Point on the May walk.

Back in the Rothiemurchus Forest, and below the low clouds. 
Loch an Eilein, beautiful in any weather.

Next trip will be in June - but I'm not taking any bets on the weather.  Given the recent variations, I wouldn't even rule out seeing the snow return.  I had assumed that by June I'd be looking for camp sites rather than hotels....

Shetland May 2015

Spring can be a fantastic time on Shetland - the cliffs start to fill up as the nesting birds return, there are (usually) lots of migrants around and you regularly get to experience all four seasons in a day.

And of course it's always a delight to see the puffins back on this cliffs.  Hopefully this year there will be a decent breeding season, there was certainly plenty of nest building activity in early May.

Snow on Fitful Head
Odd one out - every flock has it's black sheep, St Ninians Beach
Evening Light, Sumburgh Head
West Voe of Sumburgh
Atmospheric light over Quendale Bay
Scat Ness and Quendale Bay
Quendale Beach, and the ever changing streams
Returning Puffins, Sumburgh Head
Incoming - nest building time, Sumburgh Head
Soft furnishings needed too, Sumburgh Head

Yellow-breasted bunting - Mongolia

Image by Martin Vavřík, via Wikimedia Commons
On this blog I usually report on trips I have done - this post is a bit different, it's about a trip I'm hoping to make.

I recently came across a request from the Wildlife Science and Conservation Center of Mongolia looking for volunteers to carry out an initial survey to find out what's been happening to the yellow-breasted bunting. This was until relatively recently a common breeding bird in Mongolia, but over the last ten years has gone from being of  'least-concern', through several intermediate stages on the IUCN lists, to now being listed as being 'endangered'.  The staff at WSCC want to understand why this change has happened, and hopefully what can be done to at least halt the decline and preferably reverse it.

I'm hoping to take part in this survey in June this year, but to take part I need your support.

In addition to looking for yellow-breasted buntings I'm also planning to produce a photojournal and a series of limited edition mounted prints from the trip - if you support me you'll be able to get copies of the journal and/or the prints.

There is more information about the project - and about how you can help at

Updated 14 May 2015:  The organisers have decided that they need to defer the survey until the 2016 breeding season. I certainly hope to be able to take part then, and any offers of support for the trip in June next year would be very much appreciated.