The Far North Line runs up the forehead of Scotland, from Inverness to Thurso, tripping through the fertile fieldscapes of the Black Isle, clinging to the coast, edging past the nursery of oil rigs in the Cromarty Firth before finally gathering the courage to let go and jet up through the bleak, empty spaces of Sutherland and Caithness.
It is not a busy line. Most trains are only two carriages long, most stops only operate on request. Users flag down passing trains as one might hail a bus, a necessity I’ve enjoyed since I was a child, leaning out over the edge of the platform to wave like the Railway Children with their scarlet knickerbockers.
In July last year I boarded the train at Beauly, the tiny slab of concrete that serves as a platform near my parents’ house, and bought a ticket for Altnabreac, a three-hour journey and a world away. Ten miles from the nearest metalled road, Altnabreac may be the remotest station in Britain, but I’d heard too that it was at the epicentre of one of the forestry industry’s most egregious errors.
In the 1980s, driven by big money and hubris, foresters rushed into these northlands to conduct one of the most reckless environmental experiments in this country’s history, the results of which have been tattooed to the face of the Highlands for decades, and will disfigure the landscape for many more to come.
I was going north to find a tree farm, in a land where there are no trees.
North of Helmsdale, the land opens up. It is a rare and unusual landscape, stripped back and open to the sky – a blanket bog, to give it its proper name. Wet as a dropped cloth and as heavy as sin, the earth wears a black mantle of peat that smothers the surface for mile upon mile into the far off distance.
From a train window, moving at speed, what strikes you first is the utter absence of the picturesque. A single sweeping line demarcates the heavens and the earth: God’s rough draft, the Earth formless and empty still. The cow-brown flats tussocked and pockmarked by puddles and pools. Slow gradients slope off in every direction; in the distance a few low hills poke their noses into the air.
They call this the Flow Country. Flow from the Old Norse flóa, meaning flood or deluge. It is an area of blanket bog extending over 200,000 hectares of Caithness and Sutherland that came under Norse rule between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. The Vikings would have felt quite at home here, the closest thing Britain has to subarctic tundra.
With the north wind scouring the face and wetness in the air, the sheer scale of the place is enough to give you agoraphobia. It is a vastness that shocks the breath from you, an endless panorama of sky where the clouds advance and depart to a timetable of their own devising, trailing their bands of rain like bridal trains that shiver and shimmer in the low morning light. You could not paint such a landscape – it would make a drab canvas, this – but it is not without interest. It is simply a matter of refocusing your eyes to the peatlands’ subtle palette.
This huge, swept-smooth landscape is embroidered with the muted lavender-dun of the heather, worn threadbare in places, where the underlay of woolly fringe-moss glimmers through from the rocks below. Bog cotton flecks the edges of the dubh lochans, flocking like sheep to dip their muzzles in the dark pools. Pixels of bright colour spatter the banks: the sulphur-yellow starflowers of the bog asphodel, the marsh orchid’s ripe plum, the pronged crimson paddles held aloft by the tiny, carnivorous sundew.
And all around, the sphagnum moss grows in great pillowy clouds, acid green beneath and its uppermost fronds painted with rust and wine. Under this soft moss time accumulates in its earthly form, peat inching up over the rocks across the millennia in the slowest of tides, the surface rising by perhaps a metre every thousand years.
In the absence of wood or coal, local people dig the peat from the ground and burn it as fuel, producing a thick, pungent smoke that conjures the wet earth, the wet hearths of the long-past: a black house smell. It is a substance emblematic of the Highlands and Islands: that smoky base note of malt whisky, the tea-colour of the tap water, that drifting white haze of the peat smoke that blows in like a sea mist, the taste of it in your mouth.
The peatlands are timeless and time-rich both, the story of the Holocene threaded through the fabric of its foundations: the pollen of plants that wafted on the air 4,000 years ago are all carefully filed away in this natural archive. Further down, the preserved remains of the roots of trees – silver, skeletal fingers – which once carpeted these now deserted heaths. Here they are long gone, but further up the line there are plenty of trees – controversial trees – some still alive and queueing up in their long lines, many more recently deceased, lining ditches in their thousands, sinking back into the earth after their disastrous parlay into the north.
But not here. Here there is only the tweedy camber of the hills and the clack of the train that threads up through the shallow Strath of Kildonan. Occasionally, a ruined cottage, or drystone sheep-pen swings into view, or the sharp-angled contours left by the peat cutters, long grown over.
In many sites along this line, the absence of people is palpable. It was not always thus: the Strath of Kildonan was once home to around fifteen hundred people, packed in among the now-ruined townships that scatter the hillside: Riasg, Caen, Ellig, Badcharan, Shunachy, Ach-na-h’uaighe. But in the early nineteenth century, during the Highland Clearances, the vast majority of the peasantry were evicted from their homes by the Duke of Sutherland and his notorious agent Patrick Sellar to make way for sheep.
It was a brutal episode. Sellar’s men turned the villagers out by force, then burnt their houses and crops to prevent them from returning. ‘The consternation and confusion were extreme,’ wrote one witness. ‘The cries of the women and children, the roaring of the affrighted cattle, hunted at the same time by the yelling dogs of the shepherds amid the smoke and fire . . . The conflagration lasted six days, till the whole of the dwellings were reduced to ashes or smoking ruins. During one of these days a boat actually lost her way in the dense smoke as she approached the shore, but at night was enabled to reach a landing place by the lurid light of the flames.’ 1,574 people lived in the strath in 1811; by the census of 1831, the population had fallen to just 257. In 2010, a local estimate put the number at 75.
Now the great spaces of Sutherland and Caithness have become famous for their silence, their seclusion, their isolation. One’s eye may roam for miles all around, unfettered, over empty lands where once there were trees, and then there were people, and now there is nothing.
Ancient forest once swept Scotland from end to end. The Great Wood of Caledon grew up after the last ice age, and at its peak covered most of Scotland north of the Clyde: a primeval wilderness estimated at roughly 1.5 million hectares. Scots pine, birch, rowan, aspen and juniper provided food and shelter for a cornucopia of fauna no longer seen in these lands: brown bears, wolves, giant elk, wild boar, lynx, beavers.
Over the following millennia, however, a process of large-scale deforestation took place across the country, as a consequence of both natural climate change and human activity. In the far north, the trees reached their peak extent around 5,000 years ago, before the climate grew significantly cooler and wetter. The land grew waterlogged and bare as the trees died off; peat-forming mosses began to thrive, sucking up the rainwater like a sponge and sealing it in, causing the environment to grow even cooler and even wetter, sculpting the habitat to their own ends.
Elsewhere, the advent of agriculture saw forest felled in swathes; whole tracts were cut down or even burnt in attempts to rid the countryside of ‘pests’ – wolves in Perthshire and Lochaber, criminals in Fife. Once cleared, the hordes of sheep (John Muir’s ‘hoofed locusts’) that invaded the Highlands after the clearances – along with a booming red deer population – ensured that any attempts at regrowth were quickly munched.
Fragments of that once great wood still survive in remote glens and rocky gullies that have been deemed unsuitable for agriculture, but now comprise less than 1 per cent of the country’s total area.
Despite the retreat of the woodlands, any glance at a map will show the north and west speckled with bittersweetly misleading place names, conjuring visions of Arcadian everglades. Visitors to Corriehallie Forest, for example, will find it an area of windswept heath north of Erchless Castle, while across the still waters of the Orrin Reservoir the heather-clad emptiness of the Cabaan Forest stretches off into the distance. Further north Lochrosque, Fannich and Kinlochluichart Forests, then west – Kinlochewe, Letterewe, Fisherfield and Strathnasheallag Forests, all with barely a tree between them.
These designations are not purposefully disingenuous: under Scots law, a ‘forest’ has, since the eighteenth century, come simply to indicate a tract of land reserved for deer stalking – many of which comprise merely a patch of naked, rocky mountainside. In 1872, one visiting Englishmen expressed his surprise at calling such a tract a deer forest; ‘Trees!’ came the response from his local guide. ‘Wha ever heard tell o’ trees in a forest?’
By the twentieth century, noted ecologist Frank Fraser Darling would cast his eyes across the entirety of the west Highlands and find only what he vividly described as a ‘wet desert’. Without enough forestry cover to support a sustainable wood supply, the UK was left heavily dependent on imports. When war broke out in 1914, it was the biggest importer in the world – and while usage was shooting up (wood was required for supports in the trenches, props in the coal mines, railway sleepers, army garrisons, shovels and campfires) supply was short. The waters around the UK were thick with U-boats, sinking merchant ships by the dozen and sending the British leadership into panic.
The approaching timber famine threatened the entire war effort. More than 200,000 hectares of British woodland were hurriedly shorn in three years, before an expensive deal was finally struck up with France to allow the British to fell timber on French soil.
When victory was declared in 1918, the commanders had learnt their lesson. The supply of timber was too crucial to be left to market forces, and the state would need to play a critical role in the reforestation of the landscape. A new body, the Forestry Commission, was created to this end with Lord Lovat, the Highland peer that had directed wartime forestry operations in France, at its helm.
Lovat’s family seat, Beaufort Castle, is only a few miles from my parents’ home in Beauly. He rushed there from the first meeting of the Commission and immediately began planting the first government trees. Over the decades that followed, the hills around Beauly and those in the neighbouring glens were soon commandeered for plantations. Native species were planted at first, but soon the focus shifted onto other species – hardworking immigrant trees like the Sitka Spruce which grew faster and straighter than the local pines.
They planted them in straight-edged rows, long avenues of them, spick and span as a town plan. Raptors cruised overhead, browsing the aisles like a supermarket. And what first was a low, stubbly fuzz grew and grew into thick, even, geometric blocks of green. All across the country, the same pattern was emerging: the Commission was amassing a great estate. It bought as much land as it could – in England and Wales, some of it, but most of all in Scotland. North and south, east and west, the entire country was turning into a timber production factory.
These invading armies of conifers soon attracted criticism, not least in the glens where ancient woodland had been felled and replaced with alien species. ‘No longer are we uplifted by the beauty of spring and autumn reflected in the ancient birch forest which swept the glen from end to end,’ grumbled one Glenurquhart resident in 1958. ‘Instead we have before us, behind us, and indeed in some areas all around us, the dull deadening gloom of regiment upon regiment of potential pit props.’
But the criticism did not stop the advance of the Commission across the uplands. Today the Commission owns 870,000 hectares of woodland, almost a third of all the forestry in the UK. And for the local residents, the conifer invasion soon ceased to feel strange and instead became the wallpaper to their lives.
I count among them. As a child and a teenager, I spent all my summers exploring the labyrinthine tracks that riddle the slopes around Loch Ness, transported by a series of biddable Highland ponies. On sunny days, my friends and I would ride bareback to the loch in shorts and T-shirts, horsehair on bare legs, feet trailing in the cold water as the horses swam. On the way back we would career through the pocket of old-growth broadleaves that lined Urquhart Bay, imagining ourselves centaurs, clattering and cantering along winding paths, whooping and squealing, leaping fallen logs.
Wildlife does not flee from approaching hooves as it will from footfall; among that tangle of silver birch, wych elm, wild cherry, rowan, knee deep in bluebells and wild garlic in the air, we came face to face with stags and foxes, red squirrels – any number of Highland characters. Not so in the hush of the plantations.
On the dreary, rainy evenings of the autumn, when the schools had gone back and the wind was cold, we turned inland instead, following paths high onto the bare moorland of the hills and the plantation woods beyond: those disciplined ranks of conifers standing to attention, bracken curling at their flanks. They were dark, brooding places, where drainage ditches furrowed the ground like worry lines.
Down at ground level, amongst the ankles of the towering pines, their thin, branchless lengths stretching up to the canopy above, there was a spartan, behind the scenes feel, the sense that all the excitement was going on elsewhere. We rode in silent procession between bare bark columns. The forest floor was soft with needles – bronze on brown – which muffled the hollow clop of hooves on solid ground. Rays of silvery light filtered down between the stands as if through cathedral windows.
They felt wilder than the birchwoods, and more threatening. The conifers crowded wordlessly together on the slopes, pressing bodily against the deer fences, their roots matted and intermingling below. So many of them; so few of us. In stormy weather the wind whistled and skirled through the upper branches; we could hear them creak and cry out far above as they shifted their weight, leaning on their colleagues’ shoulders.
If I thought of the disparity at all, I approved of it. The plantations seemed like serious sorts of forests where people could think serious thoughts, and I felt, more and more clearly, that I was growing into a serious sort of person. But in the intervening years I have come to realise that the places that feel wildest are often the least wild of all.
Occasionally we would turn a corner and find ourselves in a razor-edged clearing that had appeared seemingly overnight. The horses would shake their heads and twist uneasily, spooked by our sudden exposure. The shape of the land beneath had been revealed for the first time in a lifetime, a flayed creature with all its sinews and sockets laid out before us. Everything left was deadened and bleaching, the amputated branches heaped in their grisly piles, soft splitting trunks decaying where they fell, hunks of upturned roots left shipwrecked in the dried mud, coiled like intestines, nests of snakes writhing in a great weighty mass.
One grows accustomed to such sudden losses. Life among plantations is not unlike that of dormice in among the wheat stalks, witnesses to changes taking place all around according to plans unknown, and watching, aghast, as the harvesters move in.
I met Wojtek when he was running a rave out the back of a car on the beach near Edinburgh. A broad-shouldered Pole with close-cropped hair, bar a small spray of dreadlocks at the back of his head, he stood swigging lager from the can and watching his lasers strobe the dancers, looking the epitome of urban cool.
Later it turned out that he also had a secret, woodland life. He disappeared for weeks at a time into the forests, where he worked on a cutting team driving a powerful harvesting machine, a Tigercat, one of only a very few in the country.
When he was posted to a month-long job on the Isle of Skye, six hours north-west of Edinburgh, a few of us used it as an excuse for a road trip. We found him just outside Broadford and stopped to watch him work. Wojtek sat in his cab high up off the ground, hard-hatted and talking into a radio mic as the great machine beneath him pitched and rolled over branches and stumps like a ship on an ocean wave, its jumbo tracks struggling for purchase on the undulating slope. He seemed tiny among those giants; both the trees and Tigercat towered over him – bigger by a factor of ten or twenty – the machine lifting its grasper high on his command like a bull elephant with its mahout.
The metal grasper lurched through the air and deliberated briefly before, in a single decisive move, taking hold of the nearest tree at the very base. There was a brief growl as the chainsaw fired up within the claw, dissecting the trunk as easily as if it were slicing a cucumber. Then, lifting the entire length with surprising grace, the Tigercat pivoted on its base and whipped it down, branches streaming up behind. There came the sound of gears changing before the machine began to draw the trunk through its grip, stripping it of branches as it went. Every twelve feet or so the saw roared to life once more and a smooth, uniform section of timber was spat out, ready for stacking.
Together, they ate away into the forest, tree by tree. The clearing grew in size as the woodpile grew behind the Tigercat’s haunches. At its foot was a mess of discarded boughs, the spindly upper branches and the decapitated stumps that nudged from the earth like mushrooms. The forest floor was a morass of muck and clods of earth.
To the uninitiated, it was an apocalyptic scene. But, I scolded myself, one mustn’t be sentimental. We all use wood, we all use paper. It has to come from somewhere. But it is something else, I think, to see the demolition play out in front of you.
The majority of commercial forestry in the UK will be harvested like this: a technique called ‘clearfelling’ wherein every tree in an area is timed to come to maturity at once, and the entire plantation deconstructed in a single sitting. Sometimes entire forests, hundreds of hectares, might be harvested at once. (The confusion of brash – the dismembered remains left strewn across the hillside – is abandoned as a natural fertilizer to kick start the recovery of the land, its slow decay feeding tired soil and providing nooks for rodents and tiny wrens to colonise.)
It is a sight that has become commonplace in rural areas across the UK, most particularly in Scotland, where an estimated 80 per cent of British forestry deals are made. Since 2000, timber production and its precursor, clearfelling, have doubled, thanks in large part to a change in the government policy dating back to 1979, when the Thatcher government instructed the Forestry Commission to withdraw from planting and introduced a new tax regime to encourage private firms to step once again into the breach.
Step they did: the 1980s saw a three-fold expansion of the private woodland sector, manifesting in a flurry of planting upon every scrap of land these companies could get their hands on. Thatcher’s forests are now coming of age, increasing in value each year as they creep closer to harvest, and for many stakeholders it has been a very savvy investment. Over the ten years preceding 2013, for example, the yield from forestry investments was 17.9 per cent on average, more than double the return from equities (8 per cent), commercial property (6.3 per cent) and gilts (5.8 per cent). But while the commercial sector has proved – on the whole – a boon for its faraway shareholders, few other industries can rival forestry for its wholesale impact upon the lives of hundreds of thousands of others.
Even when everything goes to plan, the planned destruction of local woods and forests can have a profound emotional impact upon a community. Leafy glades that husbands have proposed in, forestry tracks upon which children have learned to ride bicycles, woodland views upon which villages have gazed, can all, in a few short weeks, be eaten by one of Wojtek’s armoured beasts. A pensioner who has lived all his life in a village might watch two entire forests grow from seedling to maturity, before witnessing them carted off in lorryloads, thousands of denuded torsos piled high by the roadsides, the ground left stubbled and raw in their place.
These untrustworthy woods shapeshift, arriving and departing without ceremony. The landscape forms and reforms according to the whims of the plantation planners. Patterns of light and dark shift like shadows across these patchwork hills; forests shown on maps prove in person to be figments of the imagination, desolate wastelands in their place.
Residents of homes built on wide open fieldscapes watch trees through twitching curtains as they march towards them like Birnam Wood: scrawny saplings at first but soon tall, dark menaces, crowding at the gate.
Cabins built deep in the woods find themselves suddenly standing lonely on a churned up plain.
These losses are the results of decisions made decades ago. Plantations composed of enormous, unbroken blocks must be taken down in enormous blocks, too: the trees along the boundaries of the forest grow up stronger from the exposure and come to act as a defensive shield. If removed, the weaker inner trees are apt to be laid waste by the wind.
For assorted reasons, largely commercial, the alternative to clearfelling – ‘continuous cover’ forestry – has been deemed unworkable for the majority of the UK, but modern methods of silviculture have been developed by the Forestry Commission to take other less tangible factors into account, including the shock to communities that comes with the loss of forests, and the aesthetic cost of dense, straight-edge monocultures. As a result, efforts are now made to allow for ‘patch clearfelling’, when forests are planted in small, five to ten hectare ‘coupes’, allowing for staggered growth and removal in chunks; along with mixed plantings and more sympathetic plantation designs.
Planning has become a more intricate process – the patchworks of the hillside growing ever more dense with detail as lines and stripes go out of fashion, replaced by more sensuous curves that echo the shape of the land.
But it takes a long time for such changes to filter through. If farmers deal in fields and seasons, the forester deals in coupes and decades. The mistakes of previous regimes, which will come to deface entire landscapes, may take many years to manifest and a further generation before they are grown out like bad haircuts. For years to come, then, we live among the errors of our predecessors, which grow taller and more obvious with every year that passes.
Some errors are more obvious than others. On that morning in July, as the Far North Line wound north – charging through the tiny, overlooked Kildonan station and then Kinbrace without pause – a small stand of closely planted conifers swung into view on the hill above the track, sharp-edged and incongruous in this soft-curved landscape of heath and strath. Or at least, what had been a stand of trees.
Here the winter gales had shouldered through the border guards and got in among the interior; the heart of the plantation ripped out by the wind. It was as if some enormous beast had been penned in there and thrashed around, rolling over and over, flattening the trees like wheat in a field.
Wind-thrown as the foresters would have called them; they were tipped, roots pedalling uselessly in the air like a tortoise upturned. Or wind-snapped: severed trunks stabbing upwards from the earth in shards. Almost every single tree was dead, only a few of the tougher specimens were left lonely along the perimeter; lifeless branches thrown up as if to protect themselves from the merciless wind. Anything over ten feet in height had been sheared off, the whole scene painted the dull brown-grey of discoloured bark. A few green Christmas trees sprouted cheerfully from the ruins, having escaped the massacre, neatly tiered and ready for tinsel.
Even before this devastation, it was clear that these trees were weedy and small – either not long in the earth or runtlings struggling to keep a toehold in the poor soil and lashing weather: skinny toilet brushes of trees with adolescent green fuzz confined to their reedy tips. It was not good land there for trees. It was not a natural place for them to grow.
I had been primed for this. A few days before I had drunk tea with a young man, Daniel, at his yurt home in the hills above Loch Ness. Daniel had a wild woodsman’s beard and a half-inch gauge in his earlobe, and he told me about his work as a tree planter, for the Commission and private firms alike.
Planters are the foot soldiers of forestry: out in all weathers, living in tents or caravans in far-flung corners of the country, spending weeks out in the icy north wind, ankle deep in mud filling trenches with seedlings. It is an old fashioned lifestyle, and the planters earn good money for work that qualifies as unskilled labour, but it is hard work – physically hard – and lonely too.
Sometimes, he said, it is obvious as soon as he arrives that the plan is not going to work. The gradient is steeper than supposed, the face too exposed, the ground too poorly drained, the species ill-suited to conditions. But they don’t ask for his opinion, and he’s paid by the tree. Still, it makes for less satisfying work when one knows that such failures will be displayed, writ large across the hillside, for years to come. It is a prominent place to make mistakes.
Often he is paid to revisit sites years later, to fertilise or thin out the trees, as the saplings grow crowded. Earlier this year he had been contracted by a private firm to return to a site near Helmsdale, where they found 90 per cent of all the trees they had planted had perished in their absence. He sighed. ‘It was all so predictable. We all knew it would happen.’ And yet they had been helpless to stop it.
After seven years, the inefficiencies and waste of the forestry industry had come to rankle; other aspects, particularly the use of herbicides and pesticides, deeply troubled him. ‘Sometimes we have bags of the stuff piled up, labels on the side reading: harmful to this, to that. Particularly harmful to bees.’ Daniel has a Master’s degree in conservation. ‘It’s just not . . . It’s not what you want to be doing.’
Forestry and conservation are not one and the same. Still, they do share some common ground. Each camp wants more trees in the ground: around 150 million tonnes of carbon is sequestered in British woodland, and a further four million tonnes is absorbed each year. Every new tree increases capacity, whatever the motivation behind its planting. In his time in forestry, Daniel estimates that he has planted more than 600,000 individual trees. It’s the one thing, he said, that he’s most proud of.
We approached Forsinard station and departed again, and I readied myself to alight. Next stop Altnabreac. At last.
Along the edges of the track, the remnants of the old snow fences poked from the ground like whalebones, fat railway sleepers bleached silver-grey, stacked tightly with a single rusty strand of wire slung between their shoulders. Beyond it, the rolling northlands – the Flow Country in full flight – took on a strange visage: neat, wide-spaced lines of grey and pink-brown raked the ground as if someone had dragged an enormous comb across the scene.
Briefly, during that bonanza of privatization in the eighties, this unfertile, peat-soaked region became the epicentre of British forestry. The generous concessions that had been introduced allowed individuals to deduct the cost of planting trees from their tax bills, and no tax was due on any subsequent profit. The only element of the process that wasn’t tax-deductible was the price of buying the bare land, but the value of the fertile uplands of the south had skyrocketed. Thus, the gaze of the planners at Fountain Forestry – a private company – landed upon the great empty space at the top of the map: Caithness and Sutherland – where land was as much as eight times cheaper as further south – seemed like a perfect solution.
The company snapped up as much land as it could, and began to plant it out on behalf of investors. Their client list was characterized at the time by the Glasgow Herald as an unlikely band of ‘well-heeled television personalities, sportsmen, Tory politicians and minor gentry from the plusher reaches of England’. And so the money of many millionaires flowed from coffers in Mayfair into the peatbogs of the north.
It has often been so. Many of the most remote and picturesque areas of the Highlands and Islands have been repurposed as investments or playgrounds for the very rich of elsewhere.
Vast expanses of peatland that had been left undisturbed for thousands of years were ploughed up and planted with non-native species, the land tiled with a neat mosaic of racing green: south from the north coast along the River Strathy at Dyke and Halladale; Blàr Geal and Broubster.
Upon the maps, more incongruous names: Achlachan Moss, Moss of Toftingall, Backlass Moss, Milton Moss, Yellow Moss (from the Scots, mos, meaning a marsh, a bog, a tract of soft wet country from which peats may be dug), all at odds now with the places they describe, all smothered by those regiments upon regiments of marching, matching conifers. In all, 70,000 hectares were planted, an area twice the size of Edinburgh. Satellite images detail the plantations’ suburban layouts: forestry tracks veining the plantations in loops and lollipops, crescents and cul-de-sacs.
To begin with, all this went almost unremarked. As a sparsely populated region with little accessibility, there had been little scientific study of the ecology of the bogs. But as the landscape began to morph on an enormous scale, so enormous that people could not help but sit up and notice, the first warnings began to sound.
From a conservationist point of view, the foresters could not have chosen a worse site for the plantations. Though from a distance the dowdy flows appeared void of life, an array of rare birds were hiding in the vegetation. Arctic terns and hen harriers made their nests upon the heather. Elegant waders cruised the pools: greenshanks, golden plovers, dunlins. Sleek red and black-throated divers preened voguish plumage. Overhead, golden eagles and merlins hung static in the sky.
Many of the bird populations were exceedingly rare. An estimated 630 of all 960 breeding pairs of greenshanks in Europe, for example, were confined to the Flow Country; and more than a third of all European dunlins. And all had made their homes in open, treeless wetlands: the encroaching plantations were threatening their very existence.
And the traditional environmental defence – that the new forests served at least as a carbon sink – fell apart when applied to the Flow Country. The native peatbogs play a far greater role in the capture of emissions; as peat forms it accumulates carbon and stores it away under its spongy layer of sphagnum. The bogs of Sutherland and Caithness alone are estimated to contain 400 million tonnes of carbon, more than double the amount held in all British forests put together. By disturbing it – by ploughing and draining, then planting thirsty trees that suck up all the moisture – they risked releasing massive quantities of carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. Globally, the degeneration of peatbogs is thought to account for 6 per cent of all emissions due to human activity.
Environmentalists began to sound the alarm, led by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Scottish Wildlife Trust. A series of exposés were published in the newspapers, prompting a public outcry. No longer were the flows portrayed as a desolate and barren wasteland, but instead as an invaluable treasure trove of biodiversity equivalent in significance to rainforests or the Serengeti. The forestry tycoons took to the airwaves to defend themselves. If a bird couldn’t survive on the remaining swathes of unplanted peatland, argued the director of Fountain Forestry, ‘it doesnʼt bloody well deserve to survive’. The papers dubbed it the battle of the bogs.
Politicians could not get a handle on the issue. They stuck to their guns, then were forced to retreat, and in 1988 Nigel Lawson, then Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced that the tax relief would be scrapped. New plantations halted in the Flow Country, marking the start of a steep decline in forestry in the UK.
But the question remains: is it too late to undo the damage that was caused?
I stepped off at Altnabreac into a haze of rain as the train drew away, leaving me alone and wind-battered on the platform. This tiny stop, serving only two or three semi-occupied houses, lies at the very heart of the Flow Country, but despite the miles of endless peatlands I knew were stretching out all around me, I couldn’t see the bog for the trees.
Sitka Spruce stood shoulder to shoulder along the track like an army of clones, massed for attack. I pored over my map to get my bearings, looking for the track that would lead me back through this maze of tightly packed evergreens to the flows and, in the end, civilization. These blocs of mature conifers now belonged to the RSPB, which has spent decades securing plantation land and restoring it to the original peatland – or as close to it as possible.
After a fifteen minute ramble along an avenue carved through the trees I emerged into a panoramic view of all their hard work: a tree graveyard.
Up close, that strange, combed countenance I had seen from the train was revealed to be an endless succession of ditches filled by what must, once, have been rows of conifers like those at my back. From the ditches thin, bare branches protruded, as if seeking assistance. Each tree had been cut down at ground level and rolled into the furrows, then left to rot where they had fallen.
Hectare upon hectare of sodden, rotting wood stretched off into the distance, dead limbs greying under a grey sky. I stopped to catch my breath.
There was logic behind this destruction. The trees will decay and block up the drainage ditches, stopping the peat from escaping into streams and causing the water table to rise once again. The birds of the wetlands have already begun to return, waders wading and divers diving in the artificial lochans and dams constructed by the ornithologists. The moss regrows, and with it – given enough time – shall the peat. But the trees! Oh, all those dead trees.
I reminded myself again: don’t be sentimental. But if this was conservation, it didn’t feel like it.
After a moment I shook myself and walked on, following the footprints of deer along a sand track that weaved off into the far distance. Before me, behind me, all around me, the trees lay in mass graves, slowly covering over with the creeping fur of moss which, at its glacial pace, will one day cover them entirely. There they will lie in wait, perfectly preserved, for thousands of years. The Flow Country has a long memory.
Above, the sky was flat and iron-grey. Here and there came the low gurgle of water through the streamlets that cut their circuitous courses through the bogs, but for the most part the only sound was the wind, air brushing past air as it swept in enormous currents through the great spaces, lifting my hair from my forehead, buffeting at my face, sucking the breath from my lungs. Vegetation was growing back in places, a shroud of copper-tipped grasses softening the lines of the furrows. The lochans shone pewter, and around them, in their congregations, the bog cotton washerwomen waving white flags.