|IPA Factsheet - Caithness and Sutherland Peatlands|
Site Description The IPA qualifies under Criterion C(i). The ‘core area’ of the IPA represents the largest and most intact peat mass in the UK, three times larger than any other peatland area in either Britain or Ireland. The extended area of the IPA is the largest area of blanket bog in Europe, and possibly in the world (estimated to be 4% of the global resource of the threatened blanket bog habitat). Because of the special features of the cool Atlantic climate, ‘dystrophic water bodies’, ranging in size from pools to small lakes (‘lochans’) form on the peat surface on level and gently sloping ground, and the particular patterning of these pools on blanket bog is unique in the world. Although the hydrology of the blanket bog has been disrupted in many areas, especially by tree planting, large areas of the blanket bog, even within afforestation areas, remains ‘active’ (ie with Sphagnum species continuing to lay down peat). Forested areas on blanket bog peat are included within the ‘zone of opportunity’ of the IPA.
Botanical Significance The IPA also qualifies under Criterion A(ii) for the EU Habitat Directive IIb species Saxifraga hirculus. A large population of this species was discovered in 2002 at a site to the east of the IPA (within the SAC but subsequent to its notification, so not listed as a feature). This population, on a small area of mineral soil, is probably the largest in the UK. Six further smaller populations have since been found nearby (suggesting more may yet to be found). The species’ ecological requirements here are unknown, but further undiscovered populations may be repressed by grazing. More generally, the hummocks, hollows and small pools of the bog surface provide niches for a diverse range of bog plants. The IPA holds the largest and most continuous areas dominated by Sphagnum moss species in the UK, including the nationally rare S. pulchrum. The rare moss, Dicranum bergeri, regarded as indicator of undamaged mires, is also recorded. A number of nationally scarce vascular plants are recorded, including Betula nana, Vaccinium oxycoccus, V. microcarpum, Rhynchospora fusca, Carex limosa, and Hammarbya paludosa.
General Habitat Description These peatlands are important as one of the largest areas of semi-wild land in the UK. Historically, the main use of the land has been as grazing for sheep, cattle and some ponies, and as sporting land for shooting of deer, grouse and other birds, but this has always been at low-intensity. Forestry was seen as a potential commercial use for parts of the land in the 1980s, based on non-native conifers and supported by a tax incentive regime that was removed in 1988. Some of that planting is now seen as inappropriate, and the objective now is to establish semi-natural woodland on non-peat soils in balance with the peatland resource. The open expanses of Caithness especially are currently seen as prime sites for windfarms, with many approved or in planning, but the benefits to carbon outputs of windfarms on peat soils are highly questionable.
Conservation Issues Climate change is not included in the ‘threat list’ above because current projections for the north of Scotland suggest a general increase in average temperatures, wetter winters and drier summers, which should still be compatible with blanket bog. Domestic legislation seems to be adequate to protect the ‘core’ area of the IPA, although it is important that planning powers here are not weakened to encourage renewable energy developments. The IPA constitutes a major carbon store, and maintaining and restoring active peatland on the IPA will play a significant role in carbon capture. The sound management of the wider IPA should be based on principles established by the Peatlands Partnership in its 2005 strategy, which aim to “enhance and promote the special values of the peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland, through the promotion of sustainable land management, the encouragement of sustainable community and economic development, and through co-ordinated action”. It is therefore important that the Peatland Partnership, or some similar grouping, should continue to be active and have enough resources to take forward the Peatland Strategy, as a champion for the wise management of the entire IPA.