I step onto a particularly well-sunned section of the peatland’s boardwalk, and a common lizard startles away in a slither of black. It is not the first lizard I’ve seen here, and nor will it be the last.
Under the blue skies and strong sun, the dark wooden and recycled plastic boards – which allow a safe passage through the sodden and shifting blanket bog – are great warming spots for the lizards, and on days as sunny as this, you will see many if you’re looking at your feet.
It’s hard to keep your gaze down, though. The boardwalk at Forsinard Flows looks out onto a flat expanse that suddenly sweeps up into mountains on the horizon. From here to there it is bleak bog, which from a distance looks only brown – with the train tracks running across in the distance – but actually features a cornucopia of colours if one would only look closer.
Much like MacDiarmid says in his poem “Scotland Small”, there is shining tormentil, its yellow stronger than buttercups, pink-purple heathers low to the ground, dazzling greens and reds of sphagnum mosses. There are also the mauve butterworts dotting the brown, pools of rippling blue with waving pink-flowered bogbean, fleeting azure glimpses as dragonflies pass, and great big mounds of grey – which look like rocks that have been reclaimed into the landscape, but are actually all 'woolly fringe moss' which just grows like that.
There are also the scars on the landscape where peat was once cut. The banks are long and straight, still obvious where they drop down into the lower peat despite clumps of heather around the miniature cliffs. There are the parachuting skylarks, swooping house martins, and we have already mentioned the lizards.
This particular boardwalk pauses at the viewing station, which is a wooden structure that spirals us up and gives a bird’s eye view of the landscape. The pools of water open out before you, the colours drop away, and the sheer size of the bog is revealed. And yet this is only a small section of the entire RSPB reserve; the total comes in at 21000 hectares.
Forsinard Flows stores three times more carbon than the UK’s trees. This would stand to be even greater if not for the ill-advised forestry that was mass-planted in the 80s, thankfully now coming to maturity and being reverted back to bog. Being in the far North of Scotland (only some 15 miles from the North coast) did not keep the bog safe, despite the incredible rurality and low population density – its county, Sutherland, has some of the lowest population densities in Europe, due to the infamous and traumatic Highland Clearances, which is the subject of several local museum installations.
This part of the bog is healthy, despite the old peat banks and slightly lowered water table due to the current hard sun. Much of the Flows will be, but there are still thousands of acres affected by forestry – and the impacts of forestry does not stop where the trees do, but creates shadow effects for ground-nesting birds and changes the hydrological unit of the bog it is sitting in.
I am sure this story has played out – and is still played out – across many peatlands in Scotland and the rest of the UK (let alone the world). We do now know that peatlands must be healthy to keep their carbon stored and to have a chance to sequester even some of the carbon we are emitting. That is why they are often a large part of net-zero targets. Did you know the UK’s peatlands, of which 80% are degraded in some way, contribute about 4% to our annual emissions?
There is also the troubling fact that so much of our horticulture sits in peat compost, not least because we are extracting that from the countries we have already taken so much from – but ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is a tantalising motto for those who have the most power to change things.
We are not entirely powerless, however. You can add your voice to those calling for change, and you can try to avoid unsustainable plant buying as much as possible – perhaps your neighbour or a friend can take a cutting of their plants for you, or you can grow from seeds in peat-free compost, rather than buying the more convenient plants from the garden centre. You can also ask the centres if their plants are grown in peat-free compost, as more and more are doing just that. You can talk to gardener friends to see if they know how important it is to keep peat in the ground, or – even better – take a day trip out to a nearby peatland. You may be surprised at how close they may be! After all, ~12% of the UK’s land is peat – and this rises to 20% in Scotland. Many peatlands are protected reserves, too, so check your local Wildlife Trust sites, RSPB reserves, and national parks for information. They may not all look as watery as the Flows, but peatlands come in loads of different forms and yet are just as glorious when you look closer.
So, with that in mind, where will you visit?