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Flow Country World Heritage status 'would benefit far north'

By Gordon Calder

THE far north will benefit if the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland becomes a World Heritage Site, a Thurso audience has been told.

It is hoped that such a status would attract visitors to the area, boost the economy and help preserve a unique location which is the largest expanse of blanket bog in Europe, covering 200,000 hectares, and is home to a diverse range of plants and wildlife as well as an important carbon store which can help in the fight against climate change.

But the 200-plus people who attended a talk at Thurso High School on Saturday night heard that there are also challenges to be overcome.

Three eminent speakers – Professor Iain Stewart, Neil Oliver and Professor Barry Gilbertson – backed the bid to make the Flow Country a Unesco World Heritage Site.

They were taking part in one of three Full Flow events organised by conservation bodies, including the Peatlands Partnership and sponsor Wildland Limited. Others were held at Lairg on Friday and Inverness on Sunday.

The talks highlighted the cultural and environmental importance of the Flow Country, the need to protect the beauty and wildlife of the area’s unique habitat and the part it plays in the lives of local people.

World Heritage status for the Flow Country could boost the economy of Caithness and Sutherland.
World Heritage status for the Flow Country could boost the economy of Caithness and Sutherland.

Prof Gilbertson, a Unesco expert and an academic at Northumbria University, explained that there are 1091 heritage sites across the world, including Jodrell Bank in Cheshire – just accredited – the Taj Mahal in India, the Grand Canyon in the USA, the Great Wall of China and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. There are 31 in the UK.

Prof Gilbertson, the chairman of the City of Bath World Heritage Site, said the city has a population of 89,000 but attracts 5.7 million visitors a year.

The Flow Country could join that special list which would raise its profile at a national and international level. Such an accreditation would bring advantages, but he stressed it would be vital to ensure the area is not adversely affected by attracting many more people.

"You get no money from the government or Unesco to manage such a site," he pointed out.

Prof Gilbertson said the best way to protect the Flow Country and pass it on to future generations would be to gain World Heritage status.

Prof Stewart, who has made a number of TV documentaries and is based at Plymouth University, charted the history of the peatlands stretching back 400 million years when the Thurso area was in the southern latitudes of the hemisphere and near what is now the Sahara desert.

Gradually, that part of the continent drifted north and at the end of the Ice Age 10,000 years ago the climate improved, sphagnum moss started to appear and the peatland began to build up. It now covers a huge area of Caithness and Sutherland and stores millions of tons of carbon.

"An acre of peat bog stores more carbon than an acre of rainforest. It is of national and international importance and really important for the planet," Prof Stewart added.

Archaeologist and historian Neil Oliver, who is well known for his TV programmes, said the Flow Country is important as a carbon store and for its bird and other life but also as a place where people live.

Mr Oliver explained that humans began to appear as conditions improved at the end of the last Ice Age.

"People have been living here a long time and we have to take care of the landscape," he said. "I urge you to take every opportunity to highlight the importance of this part of the world. Even if it does not get World Heritage status it will still be special, but has to be a place where people can live and create opportunities."

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