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.
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.
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.
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.