The Flows (Bringing LIFE Back to the Bogs)

August 25, 2021

Explore The Flows on the Projects Map

Forsinard by Norman Russell

Which of the many peatland benefits is your project focused on enhancing or conserving?

Our project is focussing on enhancing and promoting the special values of the peatlands of the Flow Country through the promotion of sustainable land management, the encouragement of sustainable community and economic development, and through co-ordinated action.

Objective 1: To promote and carry out sustainable land management that maintains and enhances the nationally and internationally important areas of peatland, the associated habitats and species and the wide range of services they provide.

Objective 2: To encourage sustainable community and economic investment that is compatible with safeguarding those features that make the peatlands important.

Objective 3: To promote greater awareness, understanding and enjoyment of the special wildlife, carbon store, landscape, water environment, historical and cultural values of the peatlands. 

Objective 4: To support and promote the value of the area for best practice management and research and as an exemplar and inspiration for others working on peatland management and restoration, to the benefit of peatlands here and elsewhere.  


Which of the UK Peatland Strategy goals (conservation, restoration, adaptive management, sustainable management, coordination, communication) is your project helping to deliver?  


Following the designation of the Caithness & Sutherland Peatlands SPA in 1999, monitoring work showed that the populations of a number of the bird species had declined within some of the component SSSIs, and golden plover and black throated diver had declined across the entire SPA site
•    2015 site condition monitoring of dunlin, golden plover and greenshank showed that all three species of wader and black throated divers were considered to have returned to favourable condition 
•    Working For Waders Project (a partnership between RSPB, Scotland’s Rural College and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and supported by the National Farmers Union Scotland) started in 2017 to tackle the decline of wading birds across Scotland


First phase of restoration work was in the 1990s with funding from the EU Life Programme
•    This early work focused on the RSPB Reserve at Forsinard and the Plantlife Reserve at Munsary
•    Over the last 25 years, RSPB has blocked drains across 4,800ha of their Reserve, which totals 21,000ha in size. There is a further 2,800ha of damaged land left to restore across the Reserve.

In 2012 the Scottish Government established the Peatland ACTION Project
•    supports practical peatland restoration works such as blocking drains to increase water levels and revegetating peat hags to stabilise bare eroding peat. 
•    Since 2014 FLS has restored 3,052ha of open habitat in Caithness & Sutherland
•    Peatland ACTION Project has supported 2,714ha of restoration work on private land, with a further 420ha project currently underway in the Flow Country. 
•    In addition, the Scottish Government Agri-Environment Climate Scheme committed £501,000 towards drain blocking in the peatlands of Caithness & Sutherland between 2017 and 2020
In February 2020 the Scottish Government announced a further investment of more than £250 million towards peatland restoration across Scotland over the next ten years. This will be delivered through the Peatland ACTION Project.

Adaptive Management

In light of the understanding we now have of the significance of the peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland both for biodiversity and as a carbon store, there has been a shift away from forestry in the core peatland area. In accordance with the Highland Forest and Woodland Strategy, the focus for productive woodlands in Caithness and Sutherland is now away from the peatlands. 

Drain blocking is beneficial to fisheries interests, as it helps to moderate river flows and reduce silt inputs.  It also leads to improvements in water quality that will help the drinking water treatment process, if the activities are within a drinking water catchment. This brings the benefits of compliance with Drinking Water Standards, customer satisfaction, reduced energy and chemical use, deferred capital expenditure, increased life of water treatment works and reduced costs to customers. 

The support and co-operation of landowners in the Flow Country, including non-governmental organisations, governmental and private landowners, is key to the continuity of long-term studies of peatland restoration.

Over the last ten years there has been much closer working between land managers, public bodies and conservation organisations at a national level to promote and deliver sustainable deer management for a range of benefits including healthy ecosystems.  


Until 2014, despite the acknowledged importance of the peatlands, opportunities to find out about them were limited, as were places where you could access and enjoy them. The Flows to the Future Project (2014-2017) went some way to addressing these issues and has left a great legacy in terms of interpretation, visitor facilities and online resources. 

A key priority for the Project was to increase the number of places where people can easily access and learn about the peatlands, whilst recognising the fragile nature of the habitat and landscape 
•    The peatlands are a long way from where most people live
•    They are however a resource of national and international importance, and greater understanding and support from this wider audience is needed if they are to be protected
•    151 events were held locally including walks, talks and workshops, with over 4,000 attendees
•    Forsinard Flows RSPB Reserve welcomed 61 school visits, and a further 151 outreach visits were undertaken with 35 schools 
•    270 volunteers were trained and carried out conservation, engagement and office work, contributing over 5,500 days

What would you like to highlight as the projects top three achievements to date?


Establishing Flow Country Research Hub

•    The peatlands have become a focus for research by universities and institutions from across the UK, complementing and collaborating with research work led out by members of the Flow Country Partnership such as the Environmental Research Institute, RSPB and FLS
•    reflects the increasing recognition of the importance of the peatlands not only for their biodiversity, but also as a carbon store, and the need to understand more about their sensitivity to changes in land use and climate
•    The Flow Country holds a strong concentration of experience in peatland restoration and related monitoring, which is increasingly shared on a national and international basis and used to support decisions on national land use policy

Bringing the Flow Country to Local, National and International attention

A touring exhibition travelled to 13 UK venues and was seen by 150,000 people
•    27 events were held out with the peatlands including in London, Edinburgh and Orkney
•    A website was produced and contains resources that were designed specifically for the Flows to the Future project 
•    Stimulated a lot of press coverage in local and national newspapers, radio and TV

In 2012, a network of researchers and stakeholders involved or interested in the scientific research taking place in the peatlands of the Flow Country was launched, known as the ‘Flow Country Research Hub’. The Hub seeks to establish the Flow Country as a UK and, increasingly, international focal point of peatland science addressing contemporary environmental and societal issues such as climate change, biodiversity, resource management and sustainability.


Funding Peatland Restoration across the Flow Country

In February 2020, the Scottish Government announced a substantial multi-annual investment in peatland restoration of more than £250 million over the next ten years . This is in recognition of the fact that restoring peatlands is one of the most effective ways of locking in carbon, offering a clear nature-based solution to the climate crisis. This will be delivered through the Peatland ACTION Project, which has supported over 25,000 hectares of restoration since 2012. The Project is led by NatureScot in partnership with Forestry and Land Scotland and the National Parks.

Have there been any lessons learnt along the way that you would like to share? 

In the 1970s and 1980s some plantations were established on peatland of similar quality to that subsequently designated as SSSI, leading to a direct loss of blanket bog and associated habitats. Therefore, in some areas, forests are having a detrimental impact on underlying and adjacent peatland habitats and species, and on the carbon stored in the peat. 

The effect of forests on neighbouring peatlands has been assessed and the edge effect in the Flow Country set out in a paper in 2014. This showed that some forests were having negative effects on golden plover and dunlin breeding densities, and also on the hydrology of adjacent open blanket bog. 

  • Research showed a drying effect of first rotation forestry on adjacent blanket bog at a distance of up to 40m, extending up to 100m in subsequent rotations
  • Effects on golden plover and dunlin are strongest within 800m of the forest edge, with the most sensitive areas being where the habitat is flat and with pool systems

Restoration of afforested areas to blanket bog and wet heath habitats:

  • Now recognised that removing felled trees and leaving as little tree material as possible on site will lead to a speedier recovery
  • In wetter areas where growth has been poorer and tree size and density is much lower, trees are mulched (shredded) on site. Once trees have been removed or mulched, the main drains need to be blocked to enable the water table to rise again

Are there any resources you have found useful or produced that you think might help other peatland projects?  

There is a shortage of contractors with experience of peatland restoration work nationally, but in Caithness & Sutherland the Peatland ACTION Project has been working to bring on board and upskill new contractors with several training events undertaken in recent years, with good uptake. 

Peatland ACTION have so far produced a learning module, a series of videos showing peatland restoration techniques and run a series of ongoing events to provide training and share best practice with colleagues, partner organisations, landowners and rural employers and their staff.

Explore The Flows on the Projects Map

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