scotland (4K)
The Friends of the Far North Line
Cairdean Na Loine Tuath
the campaign group for rail north of Inverness - lobbying for improved services for the local user, tourist and freight operator

Priceless Peatlands

Full and on time, the train north from Inverness stopped at small stations between fields of sheep and cattle and cereals, ran beside the Cromarty Firth and cut across the moors to Tain. Embankments were swamped by yellow broom, dog roses and sweetbriar and the creamy froth of meadowsweet and elder. Rosebay was about to complement the foxgloves with its more uniform, flatter pink. From Ardgay we looped inland to Lairg then back, through moorland and birchwoods, to the coast at Golspie. Through Brora, we skirted shores of brown rock and tan-coloured sand, where eiders ran improbably from the train and wild rock doves rose from links and meadows bronzed by buttercups and red sorrel. Helmsdale, with its gritty beaches, was already a different world from Inverness and the train was about to penetrate a different world again.

Leaving the coastal towns we cut inland, by a blue and black river, creased with silver on slower pools where fishermen cast flies. Red deer barely gave the train a glance; fence-post buzzards ignored it. Vistas opened to the west, over ground with a boggy feel to it, enhanced by clumps of white cotton-grass. Kildonan and Kinbrace are tiny halts for tiny hamlets, exposed, windswept landscapes with no trees except around the houses. Tumbledown lineside snow fences hinted at conditions in winter: bleached posts and fence lines are part of the landscape. Then suddenly we were there: grabbing the bags and minding the deep step onto Forsinard station.

Forsinard village is the hotel, the old station, a cottage or two and a bed & breakfast, and the only decent stand of broadleaved trees for miles. Around the hotel, grass grows deep and soft, studded with buttercups. Station buildings include the re-vamped visitor centre, unstaffed before the RSPB came. A new audio-visual room shows a video about the peat lands, The undiscovered country: wildlife of the Scottish Flows. Next door, boisterous hen harrier chicks vied for attention in live televised pictures from a nest. Across the line, starlings nested in the old waiting room. It was a pleasure, too, in this area where flies are not yet wholly eradicated, to see swallows and house martins, song thrushes and spotted flycatchers. Siskins fed families in the trees, and chaffinches, as ever in northern Scotland, were everywhere. On the platform grew fat, purple spikes of northern marsh orchids.

The main road with passing places has not been widened into a soulless highway and gives a good chance of seeing many of the reserve's birds. While the quality of the landscape is instant, wildlife comes more slowly. It takes a while to find birds, to see red and roe deer, to find traces of otters or to glimpse a salmon in the river. In spring, golden plovers, greenshanks and hen harriers display but, in high summer, they are less obvious.

It was the end of June when I was there. Wheatears and mistle thrushes were prominent. Far from the road, by a forest track, a short-eared owl, tiny ears briefly raised in suspicion, sat a few yards from me. Two black-throated divers fished close to their nesting raft, courtesy of the RSPB, in an area out of bounds to the anglers. They were silent, diving often, extraordinarily beautiful: nothing comes close to a black-throat for sheer charisma in such a place.

Across from the B&B is the dubh-lochan trail. A lochan is a diminutive loch, a dubh-lochan a black pool. The trail starts on flagstones and continues along a ridge of dry peat between old cuttings, which shakes and springs underfoot, startling large heath butterflies from the vegetation. It cuts across the moor towards the dome of Ben Griam Beg, to a sample of the real thing, the habitat that the 'flows' are most famous for, the dubh-lochans themselves. The silky-surfaced pools reflect hazy sun, nodding cotton-grass and bogbean, whose delicate pink and white flowers give way to triple broad, rounded leaves, like coots' feet, in summer. These dubh-lochans are thousands of years old. The peat preserves an 8,000-year archive in pollen: eight thousand years ago, the landscape would have looked much the same.

Dunlins and skylarks sing, pipits call and there's surely a chance of a merlin or hen harrier. Bog myrtle raises aromatic leaves where a little more nutrient supports it. Heath bedstraw, sundews, tormentil, orchids and bog asphodel, above delicate mosses and lichens of endless colours and shapes, weave beautifully complex and absorbing detail at your feet.

Stand up, look around and there is the awesome peat land space and silence.

Rob Hume, RSPB BIRDS Editor