Outdoors: Bog standard

Aerial view of Flanders Moss a raised bog, Argyll and Stirling Area. Pic: Lorne Gill/SNH
Aerial view of Flanders Moss a raised bog, Argyll and Stirling Area. Pic: Lorne Gill/SNH
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FLANDERS Moss is a very special environment, home to unique fauna and flora

One of my favourite car journeys is along the A873 from Aberfoyle to Stirling. Just before the village of Thornhill the road offers some tremendous views down the Forth valley, with the most striking feature being the flat bog that stretches across much of its floor. It is Flanders Moss, a vast squelchy expanse which in times past represented a formidable natural barrier to the Romans as they marched north, but which today is best known as one of Scotland’s most 
precious habitats.

Flanders Moss is what is called a raised bog, a watery mass of sphagnum and other mosses. It is an extreme and highly acidic environment where you can find breeding snipe and an array of other specialised fauna and flora, including dragonflies and carnivorous plants such as the sundew. Flanders Moss, which is now a National Nature Reserve, represents one of Scotland’s largest remaining remnants of an otherwise much diminished habitat, which over the centuries has been drained for agriculture and more recently for forestry.

According to Clifton Bain, director of the IUCN Peatland Programme based at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, bogs are more than just wildlife havens, and it is only recently that we have begun to recognise the vital role they play in ensuring the overall health of the environment.

Raised bogs are typically found in lowland areas and are formed in shallow natural watery depressions which over tens of thousands of years have gradually filled with dead reeds and other vegetation, creating an accumulation of peat and becoming increasingly acidic as it carries the water table up with it. As the bog continues to grow upwards a shallow dome is created, hence the term raised bog. Our blanket bogs found in upland areas tend to grow outwards and are usually not as deep as raised bogs. However, the one thing both types of bog have in common is that they store huge amounts of carbon.

Clifton Bain says: “Our bogs store carbon for a very long time in the form of dead plant matter, which instead of rotting stays preserved for thousands of years as peat, essentially locking up and removing huge quantities of carbon from the atmosphere.

“When our bogs are drained, this carbon is released back into the environment, with all the resultant implications this has for climate change. The loss of just five per cent of UK peatland carbon is equivalent to a year’s emissions from fossil fuel burning in the UK.

“In the past our bogs were drained for farming and forestry, but over time such areas proved not very good for agriculture and have often been abandoned and left to deteriorate, thus slowly releasing more carbon into the atmosphere. Over the last few decades techniques have been developed for repairing peatlands so that sphagnum begins to flourish and the bog starts to grow again.

Peat was also extracted in the past for horticulture but now there is a good range of effective and alternative peat-free gardening products available, many of which are made from environmentally friendly composting schemes.

Our bogs are important in other ways too. Many are found at the head of river catchment areas and the carpets of green, yellow and red sphagnum mosses enables clean water run-off. To ensure a pure water supply to the public, water companies have found it much cheaper and more effective to repair bogs at the source, rather than artificially treating the water further downstream.

Scotland is home to 10 per cent of the world’s resource of blanket bog and we have the largest amount of raised bog in Europe. It is in an incredibly valuable natural resource and while Clifton Bain is confident that many people now recognise the importance of bogs, he says there is still much to be done to restore our peatlands back to their former glory.

“We no longer regard them as wastelands that need to be turned into something else. Instead, we recognise them as providing benefits to society. But to reap the full rewards of their potential, we need government and business to invest in them on a much grander scale.”

As well as Flanders Moss, another easily accessible raised bog that the public can visit is the Scottish Wildlife Trust reserve at Red Moss near Balerno, Midlothian.