Millions of Trees to Be Sacrificed for Rare Scottish Bog

John Pickrell
for National Geographic News
February 7, 2003
With global forests falling at an unprecedented rate, some might
question why conservationists would seek to cut down millions of trees
in Northern Scotland. But an organization behind the plan says the move
is precisely what's needed to help restore one of Britain's most
important natural habitats.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), based in Bedfordshire, England, has plans underway to remove 2,500 acres (1,000 hectares) of bog-encroaching conifer plantations from the heart of Scotland's peatlands.

Starting in April, forests in and around the Forsinard Reserve will be removed and the rotting trees dumped in drainage ditches to protect the rare blanket bog which carpets large swaths of the counties of Caithness and Sutherland.

In addition to felling millions of trees, the RSPB is also in the process of creating more than 14,000 dams to block up artificial drainage ditches. The effort will restore the water table and open areas of the naturally treeless bog.


Most trees were planted during the 1970s and 80s as part of a government tax-incentive plan aimed at encouraging re-forestation. Britain's forestry reserves were left heavily depleted after two World Wars.

Wealthy landowners—including country squires, television personalities, and sportsmen—could offset some of their tax bill either by buying up and planting land or planting existing property.

In the bogs in question, the tree plantings have done more harm than good, said Norrie Russell, manager of the Forsinard Reserve.

North American Sitka spruce and Lodgepole pine—which account for most of the offending trees—have not grown well in the marshy habitat. However, the trees have managed to dry-out, acidify, and crack peat; divert water flow; shade indigenous plants from the light; and encourage the colonization of non-native predators, including foxes and crows.

Forests and bogs like this just don't mix, said Russell. This project is redressing the balance back in favor of the bogs. The longer the trees remain, the more damage they will cause to the peat, he said.

Due to lobbying by conservation bodies, the tax incentive plan was abolished in the late 1980s. The RSPB purchased the Forsinard estate in 1995 with the intention of restoring it to its former glory. The bogs are one of very few naturally treeless landscapes in Britain, said Russell.

RSPBs efforts at Forsinard are part of a wider effort known as the Life Peatlands Restoration Project. Plans are also afoot to remove alien trees and restore bogs on other sites owned by conservation and government organizations, including the Scottish Natural Heritage, the U.K. government Forestry Commission, and Plantlife Scotland.

The Forestry Commission plans to fell 1,200 acres (3,000 hectares) of their own conifer plantations.

The entire project is expected to cost around U.S. $4.6 million by the time it is completed in 2005. The European Union will contribute 60 percent of the project's funding.

World Heritage Site

Scotland's blanket bogs comprise a unique habitat. They cloak the landscape in up to 98 percent water-based peat and are dominated by sphagnum mosses, dwarf shrub vegetation, and thousands of bog pools and small lochs. The unique nature of the habitat is behind the recent European proposal to list it as a World Heritage Site.

The blanket bog is home to many declining species including tiny insect-devouring sundew plants, primitive liverworts, and rare bog orchids, as well as many endangered insects and birds, said Russell.

The RSPBs interest in the site was sparked by a diverse population of protected birds, including greenshanks, black scoter ducks, dunlins, golden plovers, black-throated divers, short eared owls, and merlins. Blanket bog is also found in Argentina's Tierra del Fuego, New Zealand's South Island, and across the world at similar latitudes. However, the 1,500 square miles (3,900 square kilometers) found in Scotland's Caithness and Sutherland counties make it probably the largest expanse in the world, said Russell.

"Northern Scotland has one of the largest and most diverse areas of blanket bog in the world," commented geographer Lisa R. Belyea of Scotland's University of Edinburgh. "The Scottish blanket bogs are widely regarded as the [model example] for a habitat that is internationally rare," she said. "The restoration aims of the Life Peatlands project certainly are ambitious," said Belyea, who commended the attempt to restore the bogs. "Once the existing trees are cut down, the biggest challenge will be to prevent the establishment of new seedlings."

However, she added, some of the damage may in fact be irreparable. "I think we may have to accept, though, that it may not be possible to restore the landscape to what it was in the past," she said.

RSPB hopes to complete the first round of tree felling—the removal of 750 acres (300 hectares) of plantation—in Forsinard by April. The second phase will commence next August so as not to disturb bird breeding seasons which begin in the spring.

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