First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
The two-car train clacked and rattled its way up the Strath of Kildonan from the Sutherland coast, the landscape on either hand becoming increasingly high, wide and wild. Brown and grey bog-land swept away to hilly horizons on all sides. No green fields, no cosy farms, no settlements. Stepping down onto the platform at Forsinard Station, way out in the middle of these vast peatlands, I watched the train groan off towards Wick and felt a very long way from anywhere familiar.
The Flow Country occupies about a million acres of the northernmost Scottish mainland. This is the wettest and wildest landscape in Britain, lumpy with mountains and overspread with enormous swathes of sphagnum bog, apparently dead and bare, in fact seething with rare and extraordinary wildlife. The RSPB’s Forsinard Flows National Nature Reserve, based on its visitor centre in the former station buildings at Forsinard, preserves nearly 40,000 acres of this fragile and sombrely beautiful country from encroachments that threaten it in the shape of forests planted for investment purposes, agricultural ‘improvements’, wind-farms and other disturbances. It’s the pleasure of Colin Mair, the Forsinard reserve warden, to take visitors out walking across the reserve and give them a precious insight into an ecosystem whose treasures might escape the notice of uninstructed wanderers.
‘Greenshank, greylag goose, cuckoo …’ Colin recited the ‘recently spotted’ list as we tramped west across the squelchy sphagnum towards the dark peak of Ben Griam Beg, closely watched by three red deer hinds. ‘Golden plover, osprey, black-throated and red-throated diver – and golden eagle, though I haven’t seen that one myself.’ The divers are rarities nationally, but nothing unusual to birdwatchers in the Flows.
Meadow pipits flitted from sprig to sprig of the heather, common scoter (not so common, actually) and teal bobbed on the dark lakelets or ‘dubh lochans’ that formed a watery maze on the top of the rise. The dubh lochans get their name from their peat-shaded water, and peat is the keynote here – ten feet deep of unrotted vegetation that has been lying on the acid rock below ever since the last Ice Age. From the flat bog surface rose tuffets of emerald and ruby sphagnum. I bent to plunge my fingers deep into a pale grey velvet cushion of woolly fringe moss, and found myself looking at a tiny scarlet sundew, an insectivorous plant with a marbled fly trapped fast in its sticky hairs.
Up on the ridge we crept towards Gull Loch. There were no divers there today; just a solitary greenshank who got up and flew quickly away, his scarlet back a dazzling white spot against slate-grey clouds, his piercing ‘tew-tew-tew!’ coming back to us – a perfect expression of the wild spirit of this haunting and remarkable place.
Start & finish: Forsinard Flows National Nature Reserve Visitor Centre, Forsinard station, Sutherland KW13 6YT (OS ref NC 891425)
Getting there: Train (www.thetrainline.com) to Forsinard.
Road: A897 Helmsdale-Melvich road to Forsinard.
Dubh Lochan Trail (1 mile, easy grade, leaflet guide): paved walkway to pools near Visitor Centre.
Forsinard Trail (4 miles, easy grade, leaflet guide): self-guided circular walk – fields, bog, pools, woods – riverbank, from car park on A897 (904485), 4 miles north of Forsinard.
Guided Walk (3–4 miles, moderate grade, Tuesdays and Thursdays, 1 May-31 August each year): walk with Reserve Warden to pools west of Visitor Centre. Wet and boggy – wear Wellingtons / waterproof shoes.
NB: online maps, more walks: www.christophersomerville.co.uk.
Lunch: Forsinard Hotel (01641-571221; www.theforsinard.co.uk)
Accommodation: Station Cottage, Forsinard (01641-571262;
http://www.scotland-index.co.uk/station_cottage/station_cottage.htm) – from &40 dble B&B