UK minister for Scotland backs Flow Country bid for Unesco World Heritage site status

Hopes for globally important peatlands in the far northern Highlands to be named a Unesco World Heritage site have gained new momentum as the UK government minister for Scotland adds support for the bid.

Lanarkshire-born Conservative MP Iain Stewart, under-secretary of state for Scotland, has joined calls for Scotland’s Flow Country – the most extensive and intact blanket bog system in the world – to receive the designation.

The peatlands stretch across more than 400,000 hectares in Caithness and northern Sutherland and provide homes for some of Scotland’s rarest wildlife, including white-tailed sea eagles, curlews, otters and pine martens.

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The habitat, which has formed over thousands of years, also performs a significant role in the battle against climate change, storing in excess of 400 million tonnes of carbon – twice the amount contained in all the forests across the UK.

The bogs are often dubbed the ‘lungs of Scotland’ because of their role in drawing in carbon dioxide and breathing out oxygen.

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The team behind the campaign say gaining the highest protection for the site is an issue of national and international importance because of its environmental value, described as “the Amazon or Barrier Reef of peatlands”.

It is hoped achieving the accolade will also bring educational, social and economic benefits to the area.

Blanket bog at Forsinard Flows National Nature Reserve is part of Scotland's globally important Flow Country, which covers a large area of Caithness and Sutherland. Picture: Lorne Gill/NatureScot

The Flow Country Partnership, made up of a wide range of stakeholders – including NatureScot, Highland Council, RSPB Scotland and the University of the Highlands and Islands – is working to preserve and restore the peatlands and is leading the Unesco bid.

The site passed stage one of the nomination process in 2020.

Paperwork to support the application will be submitted to Unesco by the UK government at the end of this year, with the outcome due to be decided in 2024 after a site visit.

“These incredible peatlands are so special,” Mr Stewart said.

“Not only is the area spectacularly beautiful, carbon is trapped here naturally, making it vital in our fight against climate change.

“This unique ecosystem, enjoyed by the UK’s rarest wildlife, should be celebrated.

“Gaining Unesco World Heritage status would be particularly fitting for this amazing landscape and also help level up the area, encouraging sustainable tourism and supporting local green jobs.”

NatureScot chief executive Francesca Osowska said: “These amazing peatlands are the lungs of Scotland, and the minister’s backing is another stride forward in the Flow Country’s bid to become an Unesco World Heritage site.

“It is important recognition that the restoration work taking place here to lock in carbon and reduce potentially harmful C02 emissions is a crucial landscape-scale solution to the climate emergency the world faces.”

Plans for an ‘eco-friendly’ spaceport on the Mhoine peninsula in Sutherland should not be impacted by World Heritage status, as the launchpad lies outwith the proposed boundary for the Flow Country site.

The partnership has hosted 16 drop-in consultation events this year, with the online consultation portal open until 29 July.

Flow Country World Heritage Project coordinator Dr Steven Andrews says designation would constitute “an incredible recognition of the world-class nature of the Flow Country’s blanket bog”.

He added: “Having the minister for Scotland visit the site not only demonstrates the political support for this bid but also highlights the added attention that this very special region can receive, and potentially capitalise on.”

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