IT is a multi-million pound ‘back to nature’ project which will see vast swathes of rural Scotland returned to a pristine state.

But there’s one major difference - instead of planting trees and making the country green, thousands of pines are being uprooted in a bid to undo the folly of a failed get-rich-quick scheme which changed the landscape beyond recognition.

Staff at the RSPB nature reserve at Forsinard in north Sutherland are in the process of cutting down forests of Sitka spruce and lodgepole pine as they seek to restore the natural order of the peat bogs of the Flow Country.

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Many of the trees were planted on the bogland in the 1970s and 80s on the back of lucrative tax breaks and grants offered to wealthy investors including Terry Wogan, Alex ‘Hurricane’ Higgins, Cliff Richard and Phil Collins.

It will likely take a generation to complete, but the work is proceeding at a steady pace with 2600 hectares cleared since 1994. But there is a long way to go, with an estimated 74,000ha still to go.

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Some immature trees have been left to mulch into the ground.

Paul Turner, a warden at the Flows reserve for more than six years, says the re-bogging is like planting an Oak Forest.

But explaining the process to the public has proven to be an uphill challenge.

He said: “It’s down to greenwashing – we’re brought up to see green as good. We associate it with a good environment but that’s not always the case.

“The forests here are pretty monotonous across a large area and while the bog might look pretty empty, it has purples and yellows and oranges and is full of life.”

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Warden Paul Turner, left, and a collegue test the bog depth

The Flow Country is the largest expanse of blanket bog in Europe and has been considered as a World Heritage site by UNESCO.

The peat was laid down thousands of years ago and was never part of the ancient Caledonian forest which once covered Scotland. It remains the largest wilderness in the UK, despite the damage done by tree planting to some sections.

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Investors were drawn to the scheme by tax relief provided by the government for reforestation schemes in the late 1970s, but a furious backlash largely put the brakes on the gravy train in the late 80s.

New conservation orders were then placed on the Flow Country and the RSPB and Plantlife established reserves there.

Many of the forests have proved to be almost worthless, with rows and rows of tightly packed, shallow-rooted, immature trees unfit for harvesting.

Some have been ploughed into the ground while many of those which have been taken out end up being used for low-value products such as fence posts and wood chip. Drains which robbed the bogs of moisture are also being filled in.

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Spaghnum moss is native to the bogs

The RSPB is in the midst of a third phase of work, which started four years ago and has so far cost more than £6 million.

Encouraging signs are being seen in the first area which was tackled where the sphagnum moss – the signature plant of the Flow Country – has regenerated, along with carpets of bog cotton. There are also more sightings of rare bird ground-nesting birds.

Mr Turner said: “There is a well-known edge effect where these birds will not go within a kilometre a forest. Since the trees have been felled, we’re seeing more waders using the pool systems in that area.

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“We have found that this can vary across the species with greenshank and lapwing responding a bit better while golden plover and dunlin appear to take a bit longer to return.”

However, the re-establishment of the micro ecology is a complex process.

“You may think that you cut down the trees and the birds will come back but it’s not as easy as that," the warden added.

“You have to get the vegetation, the water levels and the insect life right before that starts to happen.

“The damage was done quite quickly but it will take much, much longer to repair it. I like to compare the timescale for restoring a blanket bog to that of planting an oak forest”

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The work is proceeding, slowly

Mr Turner is keen to point out that the RSPB and its partner agencies in the EU-backed schemes are not alone in carrying out restoration work.

The restoration of the area, he said, has been good news for the local economy. Though the main felling contract has gone to national firm Tilhill Forestry, the programme has provided work for a number of far north contractors.

Other smaller scale projects have and are being done by Forestry Commission and private landowners in other parts of the Flow Country. Part of a forest in the Dyke plantation is also earmarked to be felled and harvested by a local forestry trust.

Caroline Eccles, project manager with the Flows to the Future Project, reflects on how official thinking on the issue has come full circle.

“In the 70s and 80s, wealthy people were being encouraged to invest in creating what is now recognised as a problem and now EU funding is supporting efforts to take out the trees.

“Lessons have been learned and the policy now is to stop planting on deep peat,” she said.