THE fire is long out. But interest still rages in to what it means.

This spring a peat blaze devastated swathes of Scotland’s Flow Country, just as a bid was mounted for the wilderness to join the Great Barrier Reef, the Grand Canyon and The Taj Mahal as a World Heritage Site.

The bog, which stretches across Caithness and Sutherland, is the largest in Europe and is an important store of greenhouse gases.


Scientists have long been fascinated by this carbon sink. Now they believe they can learn more about the environmental impact of such habitats by studying May’s wildfires.

Their Fire Blanket project will examine the effects of a large blaze which burned for several days in May across an area of about 22 square miles.

Researchers said it offered a “unique opportunity” to fill gaps in knowledge.

They will look at the way vegetation and water quality changed during the fire and afterwards.

READ MORE: Prof Iain Stewart backs bid for UNESCO 'protection' of Flow Country

The 494,210-acre (200,000ha) expanse of the Flow Country, more than twice the size of Orkney, includes peatbog, lochs and bog pools.

Its unusual nature is why it currently being considered for World Heritage status.

The fire in May spread from the outskirts of Melvich on the north coast to Forsinard in the heart of the Flow Country.

The site being studied has been chosen because it already contains a vast amount of data readings from before the fire.



Comparative readings over the next 12 months will allow the researchers to chart the peatland’s recovery.

Dr Roxane Andersen, from the Environmental Research Institute at the University of the Highlands and Islands, said it offered “a unique opportunity to fill important gaps in knowledge required to improve management of peatlands to minimise fire risk and maximise resilience”.

Peatlands perform an important function by soaking up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and locking it away.

The small number of plant varieties which can grow in the wet conditions, such as sphagnum moss, do not rot away but form the layers of peat which is continually growing.

The wild habitat also promotes a wealth of biodiversity by encouraging a range of bird, animal and plant species.

Experts said extreme weather events, including wildfires, were likely to increase in frequency as a result of the changing climate.

Dr Andersen said: “Understanding how land-use interacts with climate extremes in peatlands is essential to inform which management practices best maintain and enhance peatland carbon storage.

“However, this is notoriously challenging to achieve because climate extremes are rare and ephemeral. In addition, their effects can only be truly assessed where high-quality, ground-based observations pre-date an extreme event and where data from both impacted and similar control areas can be compared afterwards.”

She said all of these conditions had come together in the recent Flow Country fire.

The damaged area is about 10 miles long with the peatland managed in different ways across the area.

Some sections contain tree plantations while others are partially restored.

READ MORE: Greens want to reforest Scotland's grouse moors

The study will also look at the impact of the fire on the different styles of land management.

Graham Sullivan, uplands advisor with Scottish Natural Heritage, said: “It was the biggest fire we had in Scotland this year and it was much bigger than fires we are used to seeing.

“They can cause huge damage. There are several things they can do. The first thing is to simply burn the plants and animals that can’t move very quickly.

“It can also affect huge areas and the problem with that is you end up with a very uniform habitat type across the whole area, all at the same age, the same structure and that means you don’t get the same variation in niches suitable for different plants and animals.”

The Flow Country bog provides the diversity of habitats necessary to support a wide range of wetland and moorland species. Of particular importance are the birds, many of which are typically northern species found here towards the southern limit of their range. These include red-throated diver, black-throated diver, golden plover, greenshank, golden eagle, merlin and short-eared owl.

TV presenter Neil Oliver has stressed the Flow Country was also treasure trove of human history.

He told The Herald: “This is very much a story of environment and geology but I this has been a landscape that has been touched by humans ever since the end of the last ice age – pretty much the period of time during which the bog has grown.

“It is a 10,000 years story. The hunters and gatherers became the people who were described by others as the Picts."


Neil Oliver

He added: “There are archaeological sites, there are chambered tombs, there are rows of standing stones. And then the human story that people connect with Caithness and Sutherland is the 18th century Clearances.

“The irony is that the landscape is empty but it has been made empty. People think of the north of Scotland as being empty but up till the 1800s it was a busy place. All the glens were heavily populate by a subsistence farming community who were famously displaced by the agricultural revolution, the move towards sheep farming and the rest.

“It is a moving story because it is a place where people have always struggled to survive and where in recent centuries it was made impossible to be there.

“What fascinates me more than anything else is that I am sure that for most Scots, Caithness and Sutherland is remote. I would guess if you stopped 100 people on Princes Street or Buchanan Street and asked them about the Flow Country, I think you would get a resounding silence.

“People need to know about the Flow Country, which is regarded as the biggest expanse of blanket bog in Northern Europe. The mere fact we have that is so unique, it makes such a difference in keeping our part of the planet cool.

"In these troubled and troubling times, people can feel impotent and helpless in the face of the scale of the challenges we are told we face. Really conservation and care starts with looking after your own back yard. You have to tend with what is right there in front of you before – and as well as – looking at the wider global picture. Scotland should be looking after Scotland.”

Six of the UK’s 31 Unesco world heritage sites are in Scotland. They are the Antonine Wall, Heart of Neolithic Orkney, New Lanark, the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh, St Kilda - the only double status site - and the Forth Bridge.

Neil Stewart, the geology TV “rock star”, earlier revealed his backing for the Flow Country bid.

The professor of geoscience communication at the University of Plymouth said we need to need to protect what he describes as “the crown jewels in terms of peatland” which will send a message to protect other areas of peat all round Scotland.


Iain Stewart

He said: “The key reason to make it a World Heritage Site is that just it is such a unique habitat. It is probably the world’s best peatland.

“The famous equivalents are the Arctic and the Siberian tundra areas and there are blanket peat bogs in Patagonia, but they are all slightly different.

“The Scottish one is this vast area of the northern part of our country. It is an underrated gem of an environment, which is great for habitat, lots and lots of species you won’t find anywhere else.