THE restoration of Europe’s largest remaining blanket bog will make one of the most significant contributions ever to UK climate change targets, it was claimed yesterday.
The £9 million project will return seven square miles of globally important peatland, or blanket bog, in Caithness and Sutherland to its natural state as a key store of carbon.
The Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) announced yesterday that it has agreed in principle to provide £4m towards restoration of the area, which is part of the 540 square mile bogland known as the Flow Country.
An estimated 400 million tonnes of carbon is stored naturally in the region’s peat, equating to double the amount captured across all of the UK’s forests.
The five-year restoration project, entitled Flow to the Future, will also dramatically improve the habitat for rare plants and wildlife including otters, hen harriers and golden plovers.
A new centre for excellence in peatland ecology is also planned to boost international conservation efforts, while virtual aerial tours are expected to form part of visitor attractions aimed at bringing the wilderness to life for people across the world.
The restoration is being carried out by the Peatlands Partnership, a group led by RSPB Scotland and Scottish Natural Heritage, which will contribute to the remainder of the cost.
The Flow Country, which has been put forward by the UK government as a potential Unesco World Heritage Site, was largely destroyed in the 1970s and 1980s by widespread planting of non-native trees to create plantations. They were bought and sold on by celebrities, because investing in forestry land was a way to avoid paying tax at that time.
Financial laws were changed after campaigning by RSPB Scotland, which warned that the land was being ruined to make wealthy people richer.
Dr Pete Mayhew, senior conservation manager for northern Scotland for the RSPB, which has its largest reserve in the Flows at Forsinard, said: “We have never done restoration here on this scale before.
“It’s a massive job, we will be moving 30-year-old trees and getting the water table back up to levels to encourage sphagnum moss to return, protecting the peatland and starting to take carbon out of the atmosphere again.
“Previous restoration on a much smaller scale has already shown that in as little as 10 or 15 years these areas which were heavily ploughed up [by forestry workers] can look like bog again.
“There is far more carbon stored in peat than there is in our forests.”
The existing RSPB visitor centre, which currently attracts around 5,000 people a year and nets £200,000 for the local economy, will be revamped under the scheme in a bid to double numbers.
Meanwhile, online attractions and information are planned to reach a global audience.
Lesley Cranna, SNH unit manager for the northern Highlands and Islands, said: “Getting out to this area can be difficult, so we want to improve access for people around the world through interpretation work online. It’s easier to see the Flows from the air, so we may use aerial photographs and the latest technology to help bring it to life.”
Dozens of scientists and volunteers will be involved in the restoration project, which now has two years to work on its bid for HLF money after being awarded a “first round” pass yesterday.