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The Project: Expand Nature Reserves in Scotland

DunimThe Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), operates over 140 nature reserves and is Europe's largest conservation organization. Ecologyfund is funding the expansion of the Forsinard Blanket Bog preserve in order to protect and rejuvinate a very rare habitat that is important to several UK bird populations including the merlin. (for a live merlin webcam from the RSPB Forsinard Reserve click here). The deep peatlands of Forsinard lie at the heart of the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland that has been nominated by the UK as a world heritage site.

Active blanket bog
Blanket Bog
Active blanket bog is a globally rare habitat for which the UK holds an international responsibility. Blanket bog has its 'type' location in the UK and is recognised as a priority habitat for nature conservation action under European law (EC Habitats Directive) and a number of world-wide environmental conventions (Bern Convention, Ramsar Convention).


Blanket bog requires specific climatic conditions - persistently wet and cool in order to allow the growth of Sphagnum mosses, the driving force behind peat formation. The acidic, waterlogged environment ensures plant decomposition rates are low, resulting in peat formation which spreads over large areas of gently sloping ground as well as hollows and flat ground to form an extensive mantle or blanket of peat. A wide range of acid tolerant plants such as heather and bearberry occur along with dwarf birch, bog orchid, cotton grass, deer hair grass and insect eating plants such as sundew and butterwort.

The bird populations on blanket bog are of particular conservation importance and several are 'Red List' species. Hen harriers, merlins, short eared owls, golden plovers, dunlins and greenshanks breed on the hummocky vegetation while red and black-throated divers, greylag geese, wigeons and common scoters nest on and around the lochs and lochans which are an important feature of blanket bog in parts of its range. A number of other important bird species like golden eagles and peregrines hunt over some blanket bog and throughout its range, meadow pipits, skylarks and red grouse are present although at varying densities.

Red deer, mountain hares, red foxes and otters all occur on many blanket bogs. The peatland lochs and rivers support brown trout, sea trout, Atlantic salmon and Arctic char and a number of the river systems hold important populations of the freshwater pearl mussel.

Despite the undoubted number of birds supported on some bogs, the invertebrate populations are not considered to be particularly unique. Nonetheless, a number of important moths, butterflies (large heath), dragonflies (azure hawker), tipulids and beetles (Oreodytes alpinus) do occur.

Concerns
Throughout the habitat range, blanket bog has been damaged, often irretrievably, as a result of a range of activities including afforestation, drainage, grazing, burning and peat extraction. The extent and impact of these activities is variable. More recently, attention has turned to the possible impacts of climate change and atmospheric pollution on the habitat.

Afforestation - past activity has resulted in the loss of extensive areas of blanket bog. New guidelines published by the Forestry Commission (Forest and Peat Guidelines) will serve to further protect areas of blanket bog from afforestation. In a number of areas, existing plantations are having a negative impact on the hydrology and species composition of adjacent areas of blanket bog (so called edge effects). In order to protect adjacent areas of blanket bog, trees will have to be removed from some areas and the peatland allowed to recover over time.

Management
The RSPB is actively involved in the restoration of damaged blanket bog in Caithness and Sutherland. Between October 1994 and September 1998, the RSPB led an EU LIFE Nature-funded project focused in the peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland (Conservation of Active Blanket Bog in Scotland and Northern Ireland). As part of the project, restoration work was carried out in order to restore specimen areas of damaged blanket bog and in an attempt to protect areas of adjacent intact blanket bog. At each site, a number of different restoration techniques were applied with a view to evaluating the costs and ecological success of each of the different treatments. Practical work has been completed at 15 sites throughout Caithness and Sutherland. Restoration work was carried out on seven areas of drained peatland and on seven areas of afforested peatland. Work was also carried out to aid the recovery of an area of peatland damaged by All Terrain Vehicles. A total of 1,247 dams have been installed along 19.9 km of hill drains at cost of 18,100. An additional 1,411 dams were installed in forestry furrows to help raise the water table in areas where trees were felled. By the end of September 1998, trees had been removed from 202 hectares of afforested peatland at a cost of 69,800. A similar EU LIFE Nature-funded project is currently underway in the Border Mires in northern England (Border Mires Active Blanket Bog Rehabilitation Project).

Past planting activity was responsible for a high proportion of peatland habitat losses and today the felling of trees which are damaging bog systems is a key issue. Work at RSPB Forsinard Reserve in Sutherland, Scotland will illustrate the practical benefits which can be achieved for wildlife where trees are removed from peatland.

For more information:
- www.rspb.org.uk - RSPB web site
- RSPB Bibliography
- Information on Merlins
- Merlin web cam

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