AS a child, Magi Sinclair heard stories about the bog. Its deep, black pools and soft, spongy moss might capture little legs, sucking them into its dark heart, perhaps not to be seen again. 

The peatlands near her Caithness home had an almost sinister side. They sprawled before her, acres of soft, dull land, no trees to relieve the flatness and with deep puddles that mirrored the grey Sutherland sky in the distance. 

A little intimidating from afar, but close up was something entirely different. 

Thirty-four species of sphagnum moss grow across the Flow Country’s vast area of blanket bog, every plant a collection of tiny brushstrokes of colour, each stem and branch covered in individual tiny leaves. 

Among mosses, she found the fluffy white-tipped stems of cotton grass dancing wildly in the breeze, bog shrubs like bogbean spiky red Sundew and the deep purple flowers of butterwort cope.

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More recently, her artist’s eye absorbed the beauty of the bog again – its acidic terrain, subtle shades and darting wildlife, and an astonishing ability to snare carbon and help restore balance in a modern world increasingly out of synch with nature. 

She said: “At first you notice that there aren’t any trees, the peatlands are just this wilderness in the middle of nowhere. Then you get closer, you can see the plants, the little insects and the birds. Sit quietly and spend time watching, and the birds just pop up from the ground and fly off. 

“I grew up on the edge of the peatlands, at times it could be a dark place. The pools are several feet deep; if you step off at certain parts it’s really boggy. Children and animals could be stuck. My friends were often warned not to go.”


The Flows she knows so well, are so northerly and remote that most Scots – unless they happen to fire up the car and join the tourists tackling the North Coast 500 route – will probably never see them with their own eyes. 

Yet they are on the verge of becoming listed alongside such global treasures as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Galapagos Islands and the Everglades in Florida as a Unesco World Heritage Site. 

A public consultation organised by the Peatlands Partnership, a multi-agency organisation committed to securing World Heritage Site status for the blanket bog, began this week, with a  drop-in event in Wick the first of several.

Ian Mitchell, Scottish Natural Heritage operations officer based at Golspie, said: “Blanket bog globally is very rare, and Scotland has a very large proportion of the world quota of blanket bog. We need to try to keep it in very good condition to keep carbon locked in. World Heritage Site status would be an enormous benefit in terms of the Flow Country becoming a major attraction for visitors. It would put it in the same category as the Great Barrier Reef and the Pyramids. By promoting the Flow Country as a World Heritage Site, the benefits of tourism can be spread to other areas, so other communities can benefit.”

The Flow Country stretches across Caithness and Sutherland, a 494,210-acre (200,000 hectacres) expanse of peat bog, lochs and bog pools that is more than twice the size of Orkney. It is Europe’s biggest blanket bog and regarded as the best example of its kind in the world.

Up to 10 metres (33ft) deep, it holds an estimated 400 million tonnes of carbon, nearly twice as much as all the forests and woodlands in Great Britain. 

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Its soggy terrain provides fresh water for streams that are home to otters and spawning salmon. The bog attracts common scoter ducks – one of the few places they are found – while red-throated, black-throated divers, golden plover and greenshank come to nest.  Raptors such as merlin, short-eared owls and golden eagles hunt over the moss and in its pools, frogs, snakes, shrews and dozens of species of insects thrive. 

“One key function of the peatlands is the regulation of climate,” says Dr Roxane Andersen, senior research fellow and co-ordinator of the Flow Country Research Hub at the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Environmental Research Institute.

“The peatland takes up carbon from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. The conditions are cold and wet, carbon is turned to biomass and preserved as peat. But if you start draining peatland, the carbon stored as peat is released much faster into the atmosphere. 

“So, in good condition, the blanket bog can mitigate climate change, but disturbing it will release carbon faster.”
Some fear it has already been subjected to pockets of damage. Red deer trample and graze on the delicate plants, the historic creation of farming drains has dried the soil and introducing forests has eroded stretches of the fragile landscape.

Joe Perry, the Peatland Partnership’s World Heritage Site’s project coordinator, says the fight to restore parts of the blanket bog and control fluctuating numbers of deer, is in hand.

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He said: “The deer are managed pretty well. In some years, the guys shoot loads, and in other years they don’t see many. These days you can’t damage the peatland without getting into trouble. Farmers, crofters, land managers don’t want to see an unhealthy peatland.

“A Flow Country World Heritage Site would be an enormous accolade for the area and the many organisations, land managers, crofters and farmers who have maintained this land for generations. It could also bring many positive development opportunities and, undoubtedly, some challenges too.”