Last year, in the midst of the first wave of the pandemic, the British government announced that it would back the Flow Country – a remote stretch of land in northern Scotland – as a candidate for UNESCO World Heritage Site (WHS) status. The “Peatlands Partnership,” a group of non-profits and local government agencies, is currently preparing the official bid, to be submitted to UNESCO in 2023. Long the object of imperial and national designs, the Flow Country is now poised to become a globally-recognized natural treasure: a place with special meaning and importance in a warming world.
The Flow Country is a bog, the largest so-called blanket bog in Europe and one of the largest in the world. It presents a largely flat landscape of pools and moss. But what lies below the surface of the Flow Country is what makes it special. The Flow Country is filled with peat. Peat bogs are reservoirs of history: peat forms from partially decayed vegetation at a rate of about 1 millimeter per year. At places in the Flow Country, the peat reaches depths of ten meters, capturing ten thousand years of geological history.
Peat is an astounding store of carbon– arguably the most efficient natural carbon sink in the world. Peatlands account for about 3% of the world’s land surface area, but account for almost 30% of carbon stored on land. As the Partnership’s website notes, “The Flow Country stores a remarkable amount of carbon and will continue to do so,” adding, with a touch of warning, “if kept in healthy condition.”
But the peat bogs have not always been kept up. Over 80% of Scottish peatlands have been cut or degraded; long used for fuel locally. And in the 1970s and 1980s, hundreds of thousands of acres of peatland in the Scottish Highlands were drained and, with active state support, transformed into commercial forests of Sitka Spruce. The current bid for WHS status is both a reaction to and a legacy of a long history of efforts to afforest the Highlands.
In the late 1970s, timber was a growing sector in Britain. The Forestry Commission – the state’s forest service – was committed to expanding national timber production. In 1977, it predicted that Britain would face increasing demand for wood products and foresaw the possibility of pressure on world timber supplies. But although the Forestry Commission had become one of Scotland’s largest landowners, there were limits to the extent that the Commission itself was able to drive further forest growth. For one thing, it was increasingly difficult for the Commission to acquire new land for forest plantation in Scotland. For another, after Margaret Thatcher’s election as Prime Minister in 1979, the prospect of state-run commercial forestry became much less politically plausible.
So the state encouraged the development of a private British forest industry, championing new privately-owned and managed forests through a system of subsidies and tax credits. Specifically, the Thatcher government allowed taxpayers to write off any expenses incurred on forestry operations. As a result, new commercial forests became attractive investment opportunities for wealthy Britons and institutional investors. The fact that new forests were effectively tax shelters drove a boom in new planting. For investors, what was important was that new planting took place; whether or not the forests ultimately proved profitable was a secondary concern. The result was that forests were planted on whatever land was cheapest to acquire. That land, remote and undeveloped, was often unsuitable for commercial forestry, but precious for conserving rare ecosystems.
In the Flow Country, the logic of the national tax code overrode the logics of both nature and silviculture. Bogs and deep peat deposits are poor settings for large conifers. But to take advantage of the tax incentives, outside investors drained bogs and planted millions of Sitka Spruce. The result was, depending on one’s perspective, either disappointing or devastating. From the point of view of investors and policymakers interested in expanding British wood production, the forests proved stunted, yielding little useable timber. For conservationists, the draining of the Flow Country was a disaster. More than 150,000 acres of Flow Country bog were drained, displacing wildlife and halting peat formation. Moreover, as the bog dried out and was cultivated for planting, it released thousands of tons of carbon into the air.
In transforming “unproductive” bog to “productive” national forest, the British state was relying on an old, imperial logic. It was also relying on imperial materials. The millions of Sitka Spruce trees in Great Britain are imperial transplants, or their descendants. One of the physically largest tree species in the world, the Sitka Spruce is native to the western coast of North America, where it is a vital part of the ecological landscape. Deer, bear, rabbits, and porcupines all feed on new growth; spruce needles provide blue grouse with most of their food in winter.
Tall, straight, and fast growing, the Sitka Spruce yields strong and light wood, whose long fibers are also ideal for pulping into paper. It was for these last reasons that the British government became interested in the Sitka Spruce during World War I. During the war, Britain imported the vast majority of its timber. Nearly every pit prop, every rail sleeper, every board used in airplanes or rifles took up precious cargo space on ships facing a U-boat blockade. Ensuring that Britain had a sufficient reserve of timber in times of emergency was a strategic priority. Seeking sources of timber closer to home, the British government embraced a plan to plant new coniferous forests throughout Great Britain. The policy of “afforestation” was motivated by the stark reality that though Britain controlled a vast empire, it was also island nation; in times of war it could be cut off from its imperial resources.
National autarky itself depended on imperial resources. In search of seeds, Britain turned to Canada, which one Canadian official called the “soft-wood storehouse of the empire.” In particular, it turned to the fast-growing Sitka Spruce. Starting in the late 1910s, millions of Sitka Spruce seeds were harvested in the British Columbian wilderness, cleaned in purpose-built facilities in Vancouver, and then shipped the 6,000 miles to state-run nurseries across Great Britain. British Forestry was an imperial project. Its raw materials were drawn from the hinterlands of empire, and the Forestry Commission – founded in 1920 – was overseen by officials with long careers in colonial service: Malaya, the Gold Coast, Burma, and, above all, India. These foresters brought colonial methods and values to bear on British forests.
In India, Ceylon, and elsewhere in the colonial empire, British foresters had remade forests by planting trees with high commercial values and tending them with scientific precision. In so doing, they had violently uprooted old trees and overturned time-honored local practices. In the British Isles, they applied the same mindset and techniques. They favored single-species plantations, selecting trees that would grow large and grow fast. Over the next several decades, these principles became firmly rooted in Britain. The Forestry Commission – which owned some 60% of Scottish forests – fully embraced “production forestry,” in partnership with commercial timber producers, over ecological conservation. The result was the spread of monoculture forests over government-owned land throughout Scotland. There were veritable seas of Sitka Spruce, which formed regular, geometric patterns on the landscape. In the 1970s and 1980s, these seas overflowed into the Flow Country bog.
Responding both to the economic unviability of Flow Country forests and to a wave of objections and negative publicity, the Government ended the tax breaks driving afforestation in 1988. Over the next two decades, facing public pressure and declining softwood timber prices, British forest policy swung away from commercial monoculture and toward conservation, biological diversity, and community engagement. In the mid 1990s, several groups including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) began acquiring large tracts of land in the Flow Country that had been drained and planted with trees. Slowly but surely groups, including the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Scottish Natural Heritage have begun to remove trees and “re-wet” the ground, returning the peatlands to their pre-plantation condition. But such work is difficult and costly; to date, only about 6,400 of the 150,000 drained acres have been restored to bog condition. The original impetus was restoring habitats for wildlife; now the emphasis is on carbon capture and there are encouraging signs that the bogs can relatively quickly return to being carbon sinks.
In making the case for the Flow Country’s WHS status, the Peatlands Partnership has highlighted this work to “repair the damage” caused by Sitka Spruce plantings. In fact, the region’s history as a site of foreign, “non-native” species figures centrally in the pitch for UNESCO recognition. The Partnership – coordinated by figures from the Highland Council – seeks to return the Flow Country to its pre-imperial, Scottish landscape.
While national and imperial histories help explain the current condition of the Flow Country, WHS status would mark a new chapter in the region’s story. As a World Heritage Site, the Flow Country would receive both attention and greater environmental protection. As the Partnership points out, the Flow Country’s history is a lesson in the importance of conservation and the dangers of treating unique ecological sites as imperial or national economic resources.
Empire and nation have played key roles in the story of the Flow Country’s peat. The Flow Country was shaped by imperial forestry and driven by national exigency. Today, Britain is no longer an empire as it was a hundred years ago and, as David Edgerton has argued, it is a much less unified nation than it was fifty years ago. Over the last several decades, Britain has become more local, and simultaneously more global. In a more general way, this is the story of globalization all over the world; the local is becoming increasingly global, and vice versa.
States and nations still matter. Though Flow Country’s bid is being organized largely by Scottish organizations, it will be the British government in London that is ultimately responsible for nominating the Flow Country to UNESCO. And there are limits to how much WHS status can protect sites from state action. UNESCO’s recent warning that Stonehenge was in danger of losing its World Heritage Site status stems largely from the British government’s decision to build a multi-billion pound road tunnel near the site. UNESCO’s decision to strip Liverpool of its WHS status was by contrast largely in response to locally-led development around the city’s historic waterfront.
Protection of the Flow Country is, by nature, a local issue. In making the case for its preservation and conservation, ecologists have stressed how singular it is as a habitat, how it is a unique and special area. But in seeking UNESCO recognition, the Flow Country’s boosters are making the case that the region, with its unique local significance, also belongs to the world. World Heritage, as a concept, links the local with the global. A WHS designation identifies a specific, local region or the accomplishments of a group of people living in a specific time and place as belonging to the whole world, to all of humanity.
Because peat is stably stored carbon, designating the Flow Country as a UNESCO World Heritage Site would carry heavy significance. It would explicitly link world heritage with carbon sequestration, and in so doing, identify climate change as a key threat to the preservation of global patrimony. Keeping carbon in the ground, whether in the Scottish Highlands or elsewhere, influences the warming of the whole planet. And global warming is a threat, not just to human life and heritage, but also to the existence of non-human ecosystems everywhere in the world.
The disintermediation of the global and local is a central part of our ongoing effort to understand and reckon with climate change itself. Local decisions have global impacts. Global phenomena have local effects. The slow-moving accumulation of carbon in the Flow Country’s peat bogs have always been simultaneously local and global in their effects; it is just that we are only now beginning to recognize the depth of that interrelation.