How Scotland’s rare peatlands could become a world heritage site

Ask most people to think of a Unesco World Heritage Site and they might bring to mind India’s Taj Mahal, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef or perhaps the Grand Canyon in the United States.

The Flow Country in Caithness and Sutherland is around 1,500 square miles of 10m deep peat and boggy pools

A vast area of blanket bog in the far north east of Scotland, which is so remote than many people have never even heard of it, might seem a long shot for the list. But that may be about to change.

The Flow Country in Caithness and Sutherland is around 1,500 square miles of 10m deep peat and boggy pools that has been growing since the end of the last Ice Age more than 10,000 years ago.

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If a bid under way is successful, it could become the UK’s 33rd World Heritage Site, joining the likes of Edinburgh’s Old and New Towns, the Forth Bridge, Stonehenge and the Lake District.

It was first named on the “tentative list” of UK World Heritage Sites in 1999, but has so far been overlooked, with the Government instead putting forward others for consideration by Unesco.

The team behind the Flow Country’s latest bid believe its long wait for recognition will soon come to an end, partly due to its timing coinciding with calls for radical action on climate change.

Widely considered to be the largest area of blanket bog in the world, it is capable of storing 400m tonnes of carbon dioxide – more than every tree in the UK put together.

Deep peatlands are the perfect natural ally in the fight against climate change as they slow down the carbon breakdown process, stopping it from being released into the atmosphere.

The same factors – high acidity and a lack of oxygen – also explains the phenomenon of “bog people”, well preserved human cadavers found in similar bogs thousands of years after their deaths.

“There’s a consensus that this is the best peatland of its type anywhere in the world,” says Joe Perry, who is co-ordinating the Flow Country bid. “There’s nothing to compare with it. We consider it the Amazon of peatlands or the Great Barrier Reef of peatlands.” He says the time is ripe for global recognition of the bog in the wake of the UK committing to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

“[Peatlands] are the most effective natural carbon store,” he adds. “It’s just an extraordinarily efficient and effective way of keeping that harmful stuff out of our atmosphere.”

The Flow Country is also home to rare birds, including the golden plover, dunlin and curlew, and has fresh water pearl mussels.

The bid was ramped up last weekend with a series of local events featuring high profile backers, including archaeologist and television historian Neil Oliver and geologist Professor Iain Stewart.

Oliver, who is also president of the National Trust for Scotland, describes the bog as a “mysterious corner of the country” that is “remote even to most Scots”. “I would guess if you were to stop 100 people on Princes Street in Edinburgh or Buchanan Street in Glasgow and ask them about the Flow Country, the majority would struggle,” he says. Mr Perry adds: “It’s one of the few places you can go to where you can turn 360 degrees and not see anything built by a human. It’s an incredible place.”