Could protecting a soggy bog help Scotland slow down global warming? Many scientists and academics think so, and they want UNESCO World Heritage status to help protect it.
Saved by the bog?
Slowing down global warming requires a deep global commitment to prevent excess carbon dioxide (CO2) being released into the atmosphere. One vital way to reduce emissions is to protect existing carbon stores like rainforests and permafrost.
In the UK, our largest carbon store is a vast peat bog in the north of Scotland. Known as The Flow Country, this area of deep blanket bog stretches across Caithness and Sutherland, an area of about 200,000 hectares that stores twice as much carbon as all the UK’s forests put together.
Campaigners are hoping that next year this important landscape will be recognised by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as a World Natural Heritage site.
Why is it called the Flow Country?
The name comes from the Old Norse word ‘floi’ meaning wet and marshy, a perfect description of the terrain. The interlinked pools and boggy areas make this a haven for wildlife. It’s a vital breeding ground for birds, including greenshank, dunlin, merlin and golden plover.
How much carbon can a bog hold?
As the largest continuous peatbog in Europe, The Flow Country is estimated to hold around 1.5 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e).
Blanket bog only forms in damp parts of the northern hemisphere that get plenty of rain, encouraging the growth of sphagnum moss. In Scotland our blanket bogs began forming around 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age. As the moss and other vegetation decay, peat is formed, trapping in CO2 that would otherwise be released. The peat grows very slowly, only 0.5 to 1mm per year, and today in places is up to ten metres deep.
Blanket bog is unsuitable for agriculture so much of it has remained undisturbed. In the 1980s some areas were drained and used for forestry plantations making those areas very vulnerable to erosion. Current conservation work is trying to restore the damaged areas.
Why does it matter?
Peatlands are hugely important for environmental regulation. Dr Roxane Andersen of the Environmental Research Institute of The University of Highlands and Islands explains that: “Peatlands are important because they store carbon, because they support biodiversity, because they help deliver and regulate fresh water”.
The Flow Country is also an incredibly rich habitat for biodiversity. The RSPB look after a site in the centre of the area, at Forsinard Flows where research takes place about rare birds and plants. There is also a wooden walkway allowing visitors to walk out into the peatlands and view the landscape from a purpose built platform.
What difference would UNESCO status make?
UNESCO heritage status wouldn’t change the ownership of the land but it would have a huge impact on future management plans and make an important statement about the need to preserve our natural environmental assets.
As UNESCO states: “The site is the property of the country on whose territory it is located, but it is considered in the interest of the international community to protect the site for future generations. Its protection and preservation becomes a concern of the international World Heritage community as a whole.
There is currently only one UNESCO natural world heritage site in Scotland- the remote island of St. Kilda. If approved The Flow Country would be the first such site on the Scottish mainland
What do the locals think?
The proposed site encompasses many people’s homes and villages and UNESCO heritage status would have an impact on how their local area is developed in future. It’s a huge decision for the local communities.
The Flow Country Partnership’s Working Group believe it would be a positive development for the region. Frances Gunn, Independent Chair of the group says, “I am sure that a World Heritage Site will bring many benefits and help boost our fragile economy once we’ve re-opened for business after the current pandemic.”
Councillor Nicola Sinclair, Chair of Highland Council’s Caithness Committee says: “For those of us who live and work in Caithness and Sutherland, the Flow Country is a special part of our place, our history. I’m confident that not only can we secure World Heritage status, but that we can do so in a way that brings benefits to both the habitat and surrounding communities, for our future.”
Throughout May and June of this year locals were asked to give feedback on the plans. Consultations took place across Caithness and Sutherland, asking residents for their input on the proposed UNESCO bid.
A previous consultation in 2019 found that 78% of the people spoken to were in favour of the plans. The key concerns raised were how the plans would affect forestry and wind farms.
One of the main items up for discussion this time was the borders of the proposed site, as this map shows.
What happens next?
The Flow Country Partnership (previously the The Peatlands Partnership) formed in 2006, so the bid has been a long time in development. The partnership includes charities, landowners, community trusts, universities and councils from across Caithness and Sutherland.
There is political support for the plan too. Mairi Gougeon MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism says: “The Flow Country will be a great addition to the global list of World Heritage sites. Not only will this be Scotland’s first purely ‘natural’ World Heritage Site but its inscription will also recognise the important role peatlands play in tackling the twin challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss.”
The next step is a full nomination package to be delivered to UNESCO by the end of this year. It will have to include a draft management plan, agreed boundaries. Then it’ll be a wait until 2024 to find out the result.
If successful, The Flow Country will be the world’s first peatland World Heritage site, looked after for future generations and with the same status as the Great Barrier Reef and the Grand Canyon.
See more incredible footage of the landscape on The Flow Country website.