For thousands of years, human activity left the peat bogs of the Flow Country largely untouched. But during the twentieth century, improvements in technology meant that land previously seen as barren and useless could be drained for agriculture and forestry. Government tax incentives in the 1970s and 1980s led to a big increase in forest planting, and large areas of bog that had been treeless for thousands of years were drained, gouged with furrows deep into the peat, and planted with fast-growing conifers. The Flow Country became notorious as a battleground between developers who wanted to extend the forestry plantations and conservationists who were concerned at the destruction of such a rare, undisturbed habitat.
In the end, the tax breaks that were driving the forest expansion were stopped, and it’s now clear that forests planted on deep peat will never produce a worthwhile crop of timber. A new approach to managing the Flows, led by the Flows to the Future Project [Project page] aims to revitalise the area. Its vision is for a landscape underpinned by a healthy environment, at the heart of which is the great expanse of wild peatland. Forestry and agriculture are part of a mosaic of productive land use in the straths, the fertile valleys in between the broad sweeps of hill and bog, and on the coast.
Repairing the damage
Since 1994, research has been going on into techniques that can restore drained and damaged bogs. Since 2001, RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, the Forestry Commission, Plantlife and private land owners have been working together to apply those techniques to large areas. So far, over 2,600 hectares of forestry have been restored to blanket bog, and the lessons learned in the Flows are now being applied in many other countries.
Restoring a bog takes a lot of work. It begins with felling the trees. Depending on their size, ground conditions and other factors, the dead wood is sometimes crushed and used to fill the deep furrows where the trees were planted. Drains are blocked to restore the water table to its original level. For many years the land needs maintenance to remove any new trees growing from seeds left in the soil, as well as to manage the amount of grazing by deer.
If you would like to learn more about specific restoration techniques used, you could take a look at the demonstration videos by Scottish Natural Heritage.
The signs of a healthy bog can appear quite soon after the trees are gone and the ground is waterlogged. Sphagnum mosses and other bog plants begin to grow again, and insects and birds that depend on the wet peatland come back. The Flows have developed over thousands of years. Repairing damaged sections needs careful research, hard work – and patience.