The rugged boggy landscape of Scotland’s Flow Country could soon join the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef as an internationally recognised World Heritage Site.
The move depends on a successful bid to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.
Scotland already has six recognised Unesco sites – the Heart of Neolithic Orkney, which includes ancient remains at Skara Brae and Maeshowe, the Antonine Wall, Edinburgh’s Old Town and New Town, St Kilda, New Lanark and the Forth Bridge.
Now a working group has been set up to push forward the plan to achieve official designation for the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland as a natural World Heritage Site. They believe the accolade would benefit local communities, the environment and the economy.
Project coordinator, Joe Perry, is in charge of putting together the proposal, which must demonstrate why the place is of “outstanding universal value”.
He said: “The north of Scotland is fast becoming a destination for photographers, eco-tourists and heritage enthusiasts. At first glance, it can seem to be a harsh and intimidating environment, but a closer look reveals beautiful plants and animals and a human history stretching back thousands of years.
“We’ve got to show this blanket bog is not just important for Caithness and Sutherland – it is the best of its kind globally and is universally important. It’s about the habitat itself, because of the sphagnum moss – nowhere else is it quite as deep, full and healthy.”
This corner of northern Scotland holds more than 400,000 hectares of blanket bog, making it the largest expanse of this wild habitat in Europe.
The bogs have been growing for more than 10,000 years, since the end of the last ice age, and the peat is now up to 10 metres deep.
Pristine peatlands store vast amounts of carbon and are globally important in the fight against climate change.
“This is the Amazon or Barrier Reef of peatlands,” said Perry. “It’s the outstanding example in the whole world, and that’s why Unesco would be impressed by it.”
The working group is a collaboration between national and local government, environmental groups, educational bodies and businesses with links to the area.
Caithness resident Frances Gunn, who supports the initiative, said: “We live in a wonderful part of the world and now the rest of the world is discovering just how special it is.
“We hope this accolade will attract visitors who appreciate the natural world, that they take time to stop, get off the beaten track and learn all about the area and its natural and cultural heritage, rather than rush through to the next stop.”
Malcolm Roughead, VisitScotland chief executive, said: “The Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland is one of the last true wilderness areas of Europe, home to numerous rare plants, insects and birds.
“As far as potential visitors to Scotland are concerned, World Heritage Site status would not only protect this vitally significant habitat for future generations but lend even greater aura and appeal to one of the country’s most unique landscapes.”
Only one site in the UK can be put forward for consideration by Unesco each year. The 2018 nomination is a slate mine in Wales, which would get a landscape designation if successful.