Caithness and Sutherland Peatlands IPA

Location: At the most north easterly tip of Scotland, between the coast and the A838.

Grid Reference: NC 860 398

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Nearly a million acres of peat and boglands in Caithness and Sutherland make this the largest expanse of such habitat in Europe. Home to rare marsh saxifrage, insect-eating plants and a host of other wildlife, this is a unique and very special landscape.

Often referred to as ‘the Flow Country’, this area of Scotland is one of the least populated parts of Europe. Through the slow but continuous growth of sphagnum bog-mosses, peat has been forming here for thousands of years and can reach five metres in depth. It forms a vast expanse of flat peatland, the surface of which is mostly a spongy, living layer of Sphagnum bog-moss.

In many places the surface is punctuated by small peaty pools known in Gaelic as 'dubh lochans' - 'black lakes'. There are numerous larger lochs, most of which have a peaty substrate but some with firmer, stony or sandy margins. Many streams of varying size and character drain the moorlands. The structurally diverse variety of peatland and freshwater habitats found here support a number of uncommon and threatened plant species.

This is very much a land of mosses. Many different species thrive here but the sphagnum bog-mosses dominate. Growing in an almost continuous tussocky carpet, they can soak up to eight times their own weight in water, producing a deep, bouncy sponge underfoot.As well as common species like feathery bog-moss and cow-horn bog-moss, there are rare species such as rusty bog-moss, Austin’s bog-moss and golden bog-moss. Amongst these cotton-grasses, deergrass, ling and cross-leaved heath can be found and, occasionally, wild cranberry and bog orchid.

One of the stars of the show here is marsh saxifrage, known at only six other sites in the UK. Rising from clumps of narrow leaves, the relatively large star-shaped yellow flowers are finely spotted with red. The three clumps found here form one of biggest populations in Britain.

Where peat is better drained or where management has caused it to dry out, wet heath develops. This community has many of the same plants as blanket bog, but the bog mosses are less dominant, cotton-grass is absent and heather is more widespread. Also present are bog asphodel, sundews, and sedges such as slender sedge, flea sedge and bog-sedge.

The waters of the pools and lochans are naturally acidic and very low in nutrients. As a result, few plants can survive but those that do can be abundant. Lawns of shoreweed can carpet the substrate, along with bulbous rush, bog pondweed, water-milfoil and the rare awlwort. The beautiful water lobelia is remarkable, with its blue flowers held high above the water on tall wiry stems (and yes, it’s related to the lobelia in our hanging baskets!). The margins of a few lochs support two very rare plants bog hair-grass and marsh clubmoss, which looks like tiny green caterpillars creeping over the peat.

Plantlife’s Munsary Peatlands reserve forms part of this IPA. Click here for more details.

Image: Munsary© Davie Black/Plantlife

Wildflower Walks: The wild plants of Munsary peatlands

Wildflower Walks: The wild plants of Munsary peatlands

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Scotland's Important Plant Areas

Scotland's Important Plant Areas

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