Thirty-three years ago, at this time, I was walking around the Flow Country in the north of Scotland in my first few months working for the RSPB. Last year, at this time, I was in the northwest of the USA. What links those two times is the trees I was looking at. In both cases they were Sitka Spruce and Lodgepole Pine. These two trees are native to North America but were the non-native species chosen for large-scale afforestation of the peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland which galloped ahead in the mid-1980s.
My role for the RSPB in 1986 was to lead some research into the impacts of afforestation on the birds of those remote peatland areas (see Fighting for Birds Chapter 2 and also Birds and Forestry for an overview of the issues).
The afforestation of the Flow Country is a fascinating case study and a sad tale of destruction. In fact, like most issues, it’s a mixture of good and bad, of right and wrong and of triumph and disaster. This area straddling the Caithness and Sutherland border just before you get to Thurso, Wick or John O’Groats was neglected by nature conservationists and then pounced on by the forestry company Fountain Forestry who realised that the Flow Country, through a combination of low land prices, planting grants and provisions for tax relief was a great place for rich highly-taxed people to make more money out of forestry even though it didn’t matter much whether the trees grew well or not. It was a very clever move but it led to massive damage to a great place for nature and a wonderful landscape.
I’ll never forget standing and watching a powerful tractor, with caterpillar tracks (preventing it sinking into the bogs) pulling a massive plough which created a black furrow as it turned over peat that had been buried for thousands of years. It was as smooth and as impressive as someone using an icing bag to decorate a cake. The peat was sliced out of the ground and dumped in neat rows, like decoration, and the trees were later planted in the exposed raised rows of upended peat. The trees that were planted were those Sitka Spruce and Lodgepole Pines from North America.
I was back in the Flow Country last week, boring my grown-up offspring with tales of what Dad did when he was their age.
We walked over the short boardwalk across the bogs and through the dubhlochans to the tower that gives you a view over the landscape.
The landscape would look better without the trees but if you keep looking down then you see Sphagnum moss, Common Lizards, Cotton Grass and Sundews.
And we visited the RSPB visitor centre at Forsinard, in the railway station building – it’s an impressive display.
Is this true? I guess it must be. Impressive!
A good way to see into the heart of the Flow Country is to get the train from Forsinard station to Thurso, have a late lunch in Thurso, and then head back to Forsinard. That’s what we did and the most challenging bit was finding somewhere in Thurso that does lunch (or anything else that looks like food) at 230pm (I recommend YNot – because it’s open!). I also recommend the pair of Arctic Terns nesting on the far side of the track at Thurso railway station.
The journey through the Flows by train is an eye-opener. The trees have grown in the past 33 years – some of them well but others not so well. The RSPB has been clearing trees in some places with EU funding – people were paid to put them there and then they were paid to take them away. But it’s a damaged landscape without a doubt. I’ll go back one day and have a closer look at the wildlife but even if every single Dunlin, Golden Plover, Greenshank, Common Scoter, Red-throated Diver and Black-throated Diver is still there, it’s still a damaged landscape.
I felt a bit low about it, but it was an interesting day. But nature was kind enough to provide a pick-me-up on the journey back to where we were staying – two White-tailed Eagles and a ringtail Hen Harrier as we drove, to add to the two Golden Eagles and a Short-eared Owl we had seen from the train.
I have a more uplifting story to tell of work elsewhere in the region later this week.