Andrew Coupar has crouched down by a small pool, its surface peppered with the small stalks of bogbean. In autumn its dark green oval leaves echo the muted browns, greens and ochres of the surrounding peatland.
In spring, however, the bogbean’s pink-fringed white flowers put on a remarkable display, carpeting the cluster of pools that mirror the blue skies and light clouds above and, along the horizon to west, the mountains of Sutherland.
“To me it always looks out of place, because it looks such an exotic flower; white, pink and frilly,” said Coupar, a peatlands expert with NatureScot, a government conservation agency. “If you’d never seen one before and you came walking along, you would say ‘Wow, what’s that doing here?'”
Surrounding those pools near Forsinard, a hamlet and train stop on the single-track line to Wick, are a host of other diminutive plants: tiny carnivorous sundew, white-tipped fronds of bog cotton, the bright pinks and purples of cross-leaved heath and common heather, yellow-flowered bog asphodel, bog myrtle and moist cushions of sphagnum moss.
Black darter dragonfly, the gold-ringed dragonfly and four-spotted chaser rest on the rocks and leaves. The pools attract rare waders such as dunlin, golden plover and the red-throated diver, while squadrons of pink-footed and greylag geese fly in to nest and breed, their cries echoing over the gently undulating landscape.
These species are the stars of the Flow Country, a vast expanse of almost uninterrupted blanket bog that stretches over about 4,000 sq km of Caithness and Sutherland – an area larger than Hampshire or Kent.
In several weeks, conservationists hope the heart of Flow Country, an area of about 1,400 sq km of the most pristine peatland, will come a significant step closer to becoming the first peatland globally to win world heritage site status.
Soon the UK government will confirm whether it will ask Unesco to add the Flow Country to an exclusive list that includes the Great Barrier Reef and the Taj Mahal, alongside other British candidates such as Chatham’s historic dockyard and the south Atlantic island of St Helena.
These places are already on the UK’s “tentative” list as candidate world heritage sites, but for climate scientists and UK ministers, the Flow Country’s candidacy could have a profound impact on the global fight to combat climate heating.
Its supporters, senior conservation scientists, argue it would make the region a showcase for peatland management, including repairing areas damaged by human intervention worldwide, and confirm peat bogs as essential components in future efforts to arrest climate change.
Peatlands are among the greatest stores of carbon, trapping billions of tonnes in places as remote as Kamchatka and Sakhalin in Russia, the Falkland islands and Tierra del Fuego.
Ecologists estimate that while peatlands cover only 3% of the Earth’s land surface, they hold 30% of the carbon stored on land. They calculate the Flow Country’s peatlands, which are up to 15 metres deep after more than 10,000 years of plant deposition and expansion, alone hold 400m tonnes of carbon – roughly twice the total carbon content of all the woodlands and forest in the UK.
Prof Des Thompson, NatureScot’s principal science adviser and an architect of the world heritage site bid, said the Flow Country had remarkable significance. “It’s the single largest peat deposit in the world and therefore it’s the single largest carbon repository in the world; it’s the world’s largest in terms of one block, one expanse of blanket bog.”
Peatlands are under sustained threat from climate change, which is warming the chilly and moist northern and southern latitudes where peatlands thrive, and also by agriculture, commercial forestry and industrial expansion. They release carbon as they dry out, fragment and degrade. On contact with air, the dry particles oxidise into carbon dioxide.
“If they are intact and functioning well, they are absolute life savers. But where they are degraded and pouring out carbon, an absolute liability,” Thompson said. “It’s so vital to restore them, to preserve our carbon balance.”
An expert assessment by the International Mire Conservation Group (IMCG) in 2016, which supported the Flow Country’s case for world heritage site status, said most peatland areas in industrialised countries were heavily degraded.
In central Scotland, 60% are degraded; across the Pennines of England, 85% are damaged; on Exmoor it is 90% and in Wales 50%. Up to 85% of Ireland’s substantial peatlands in Kerry, Wicklow, Donegal and Connemara, strip-mined to fuel power stations and supply garden centres, are degraded.
In the UK, aggressive action funded by previous governments to dry out peat moorland has contributed to flooding of large towns and cities. So, too, has significant forestation of peatlands, subsidised by successive governments and previously used by celebrities such as Sir Terry Wogan as tax-efficient investments.
Darrell Stevens, the reserve manager for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which owns 22,000 hectares of the Flow Country, including Forsinard, said winning world heritage site status would increase attention on peatland restoration.
That includes the politically charged issue of commercial forestry. That brings peatland conservation into collision with the Scottish and UK government’s plans to dramatically increase woodland cover to help the UK meet its net zero climate targets, potentially by expanding forestry across peat uplands, which are also ripe for new windfarms.
Forestry plantations, largely laid with taxpayer support, cover about 15% of northern Scotland’s blanket bog, and the IMCG estimates 45% of the Flow Country is degraded, although the world heritage site bid focuses on the most pristine areas.
The RSPB has felled about 1,000 hectares of forestry from its land, leaving a large area disfigured by tree stumps and smothered by thousands of tonnes of discarded branches and brash. “It was inappropriate planting: it shouldn’t have happened in the first place,” Stevens said.
The RSPB plans to remove all the forestry on its reserve and the miles of road cut through the peat for forestry machinery, but large areas under private and state-owned forestry remain intact.
The Scottish government, which controls forestry policy, has not yet committed to deforesting the Flow Country.
Stevens said: “It is the opportunity to show the potential for continued restoration, for continued and improved carbon sequestration. If we don’t look after it, it will become a net emitter of carbon. All mixed together, this landscape is so special.”