THE human mind loves nature's  patterns, and the vast dappling of pool and peat that is the Flow Country is one of the most quietly epic landscapes in Scotland. This is a huge expanse of blanket bog, stretching from Caithness to Sutherland, an ecosystem formed over many millennia and whose prime component is sphagnum moss. The peat here is, in places, 15 metres deep. Not only is this panorama breath-taking to look at, but it is now considered a vital element in our defence against the effects of climate change – a huge carbon sink. 

Flow Country: Caithness bog could be on a par with Pyramids

This peatland, Scotland’s equivalent of a rainforest, is currently the focus of a UNESCO World Heritage status bid. The Flow Country is the largest blanket bog in the world and it stores, it has been estimated, almost 400 million tonnes of carbon – twice the total carbon content of all the woodlands and forests in the UK. Globally, peatlands, despite covering only three percent of the world’s land area, contain an astonishing 30 percent of all carbon stored on land. 
Such knowledge affects how we appreciate this marshy vista. This rough and raw beauty, we now know, is vital to our survival. It is also an ecosystem that has been destroyed in some parts by forestation. We think planting trees is good for the planet, but the plantings that took place in this area are not. At Forsinard Flows, RSPB Scotland has been trialling various approaches to peatland restoration – and there are areas in which bog conditions are already re-establishing.
It’s not just in its panorama, but also in its minutiae, its wildlife, that the flow country is a marvel. A list of the names of the flora and fauna that live here is its own poetry. Bog myrtle, wild cranberry, bog orchid, cotton grass and butterwort. There are also dragonflies, otter, deer, common scoter ducks and rare waders like the dunlin and golden plover. 
What astounds is also what we cannot see, what lies beneath the surface, the strata of the peat bog – an upper level of mosses and other plants, living at the surface but dead and dying below, and a lower layer called the catotelm, in which the decayed former plants are decomposed and compressed into peat.
Bog, or mire, have often been derogatory terms, associated with being stuck, but now we are beginning to see them in a positive light. The Flow Country is our prize, a heartland, which we must protect just in order to keep ourselves and the kind of world that sustains us alive. It is not just our heritage, though it reaches deep into the past, but our future.