Living in Sutherland, not a day goes by when I don’t gaze across thousands of hectares of the very wet stuff, and each and every time I’m drawn towards it.
Except when the Heather is in flower, from a distance it really does always look quite bleak, ‘devoid of life’, a ‘barren wasteland’. And those misconceptions are, at least in part, the reason that I’m drawn to walk across it.
Let’s be clear. It is wild, it’s rather flat and open, therefore exposed to the elements (wind and rain, but also sunshine!), but every time I’m bouncing along on the peat, I feel completely free, ‘away from it all’ and I anticipate that I will experience something new.
Thirty years ago, on a holiday to the Highlands in search of the wonderful, unique Scottish flora and fauna, I recall being very fearful of the bog. Drawn out onto the moss in search of orchids, and feeling it bounce beneath me with every step, I was very scared of disappearing into it and rightly so! In the fortnight holiday, I certainly didn’t become less fearful.
In January 2010, I was fortunate enough to secure the job of Warden at the RSPB’s Forsinard reserve, led by long-established Site Manager, Mr Flow Country himself, Norrie Russell. Over the next few years I undertook many LONG walks across the bog to survey and monitor populations of deer and the breeding birds. And what SUPERB birds they were! Are! Greenshank, Dunlin, Golden Plover, Wood Sandpiper, Hen Harrier, Red-throated and Black-throated Divers, Common Scoter, Wigeon…
These special birds breed at very low densities, so much of the time there are none to see. Well, that isn’t quite true, because Meadow Pipit and Skylark are always within view or earshot! However, with almost EVERY step came a change in the flora beneath my feet — a splendid mosaic of variously coloured Sphagnum and other mosses, liverworts, lichens, club-mosses, sedges and grasses and… flowering plants! There are obvious ones like the heathers, but many others were there, like Dwarf Birch, Cowberry, Bearberry, Crowberry, Cow-wheat, Eyebright, Milkwort, and, my favourites, various orchids.
But the blanket bog isn’t only special in the spring and summer months. Bird-wise, in the autumn the skies are dotted with skeins of Pink-footed Geese, and the bog and Heath takes on a spectacular, golden hue; in the middle of winter I’ve seen Snowy Owl, Shore Lark, Great Grey Shrike. And it always has the huge horizons, huge skies, the dark, mysterious lochans.
Of course, these survey walks gave me confidence to explore the blanket bog, with its array of ‘pool systems’, streams and lochs. But not without mishap - I did end up stepping through the surface a few times, sinking in to the depth of my knees, my waist, my chest and, twice, my neck! Often it happened because I wasn’t looking where I was stepping, because I was watching a passing bird. I now know where NOT to step.
Sadly I didn’t really take advantage of working at Forsinard to spend much time with Norrie out in the field, on ‘the flows’. But one thing is for certain - I got to fully understand how someone can fall in love with this place and it’s little wonder that World Heritage Site status is on the cards.
There are a multitude of reasons to visit The Flows. The ‘bog-walk’ experience is a must! So why not join me sometime?