Country matters: Going with the Flow Country

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The Independent Culture
Even to someone who has seen it before, the Flow Country presents an astonishing landscape. Far north in the wilds of Sutherland and Caithness, for mile after mile, as far as eye can see, peat bog stretches away, sometimes dead flat, sometimes undulating slightly, dotted everywhere with shining pools known as dubh (black) lochans. The landscape's beauty pulls at the heart, but it is also exceedingly mournful: drizzle or hard rain is usually falling, and on a rare fine day, as pewter-coloured cloud shadows flit over the soft browns and greens, you feel that only the blue-grey mountains that guard the western horizon - Ben Griam Mor and Ben Griam Beg, Ben Loyal and Ben Hope - stand between you and the end of the world.

For 4,000 years at least, this vast expanse had no trees on it. Over the centuries, millimetre by millimetre, decomposing sphagnum moss laid down a blanket of peat, which in places is now 50ft deep, and not a tree grew. Then, in the Eighties, the commercial firm Fountain Forestry began to buy large tracts of land and plant conifers, thereby stirring up a tremendous ecological row.

There was nothing illegal about the operation. On the contrary, it was precipitated by the financial regulations in force at the time. As a means of increasing Britain's meagre woodland cover, the Government had granted exemption from income tax to funds used for creating new forests. The result was that many high earners - pop singers and film stars among them - suddenly wanted to put money into trees: Fountain Forestry had a bank of clients looking for sites, and when land began to become available in the Flow Country at a very low price - pounds 60 an acre, or less - a rush to buy and plant set in.

Sceptics proclaimed that the whole scheme was madness. The trees, they said, would never grow - or, if they did struggle on for a few years, they would be blown over by the gales that howl across the wilderness. But experiments by the Forestry Commission had already shown that it was possible to grow trees in blanket peat bog, and at first no objections were made to the new commercial plantations. Only when activity reached a peak in 1985 did organisations such as the Nature Conservancy Council and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds begin to express alarm about the damage being done to the environment, which is the nesting-ground of some remarkable birds, including the common scoter, greenshank, black- throated and red-throated divers, golden plover and dunlin.

By 1988 ecological protests had become so vociferous that the then Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, ended the tax concession. Although he also granted a grace period of five years, in which schemes already begun could be completed, planting slowed dramatically. Then, in 1995, the RSPB bought 17,500 acres of the former Forsinard estate and established a new reserve.

In this unique environment the aims of foresters and birdmen are diametrically opposed. The foresters naturally anticipate that their clients' trees will grow well, and that soon after they are 40 years old they will be felled in fairly small coupes and gradually replaced by new plantations, so that eventually the woodland will be variegated, of many different ages.

"They're still standing!" said Donald MacLennan, jokily, as he took me out on a tour. As one of Fountain's northern managers, based at Wick, he takes some pride in pointing out that many blocks are growing even better than the company expected. Hoping (in their own terms) for yield class 12, they look like achieving yield class 14-16, or even higher, in the best stands.

Much depends on the amount of fertiliser the trees receive. All had a dose when they were planted, and most got a second dressing in year seven. Some owners, however, did not wish to pay for the follow-up treatment, and in their blocks growth has now slowed noticeably.

The main crop is sitka spruce, with lodgepole pine planted among them as a nurse species. The pine's special value is that it dries out the ground quickly, but in the past few years it has acquired another advantage. Lodgepole has suddenly become fashionable for Christmas trees, so that owners are getting an unexpected bonus.

Further income derives from the lease of sporting rights. Large numbers of roe deer have established themselves in the new woods, and one proprietor, far from keeping fences intact, is actually removing them to encourage more deer in.

As Donald pointed out, only a relatively small proportion of the land has been planted: the wettest areas were left alone, and there are still many thousand acres of open bog. Nevertheless, the birdmen feel that the trees have already destroyed large parts of a priceless habitat. Even though most of their own ground is still clear, they see the forest as a major threat; they are worried that the trees are drying out the bog, and that, as trees grow larger and more dense, they will provide an ever more secure base for predators such as foxes and hooded crows.

"This habitat is indisputably of the highest importance, even in global terms," says Norrie Russell, the RSPB's local manager. "Most of it has been notified as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, and it's the only biological site put forward by Britain for the latest tranche of World Heritage Site listings."

Already, on its own territory, the RSPB has done what it can to reverse the decline, blocking up drains to restore water levels and felling 500 acres of young trees. In a block once owned by the snooker player Hurricane Higgins the spruce and pine now lie in serried ranks, like fallen soldiers, too poor and scrawny to be worth collecting. In time they will rot; the drainage ditches will gradually fill with silt and moss, and the site will return to the bog of ages.

The Forsinard reserve has quickly proved to be a major attraction, pulling in between 5,000 and 6,000 visitors a year, and putting much-needed money into the local economy. Many people travel from Inverness on the railway that potters up Strath of Kildonan alongside a single-track road.

In an excellent visitor centre, established in the old station building on the platform, the most riveting display is of hen harriers nesting: by infiltrating a television camera close to a nest, the wardens have secured live coverage of the mother bird ripping up kills and feeding them to her chicks. For an intimate look at the bog and its plants, visitors can walk out on the mile-long Dubh Lochan path, which winds between dark pools, and feel the peat quake beneath their feet.

Fortunately, relations between bird-men and foresters are cordial; in spite of their different objectives, the two sides work together in harmony, so that after a period of fast change the wilderness is now settling down to a steadier future.