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Rescuing the Rain Forest of Scotland

Conservationists are felling trees to restore peatlands to their natural state. Rare birds depend on their success.

January 26, 2003|Jane Wardell | Associated Press Writer

FORSINARD, Scotland — Working in the shadow of some of Scotland's highest mountain peaks, conservationists are ripping out thousands of trees -- planted mostly as a tax break for wealthy investors -- to preserve the habitat of some of the world's rarest birds.

The European Union has partly funded a $4.3-million program to restore the Forsinard Nature Reserve in the Scottish Highlands to a massive bog.

"We've started on a major operation that will return the peatlands to their former condition. The bogs are of massive international importance and are among the most uniquely significant habitats in Britain," said Norrie Russell, manager of the reserve.

Forsinard, sometimes called Scotland's rain forest, is home to nesting birds such as the black-throated diver, common scoter, greenshank and hen harrier. The birds share the peatlands with millions of insect-eating sundew plants, dragonflies, water beetles and red deer. Similar conditions are rare elsewhere in the world, occurring only in isolated spots such as Tierra del Fuego and the South Island of New Zealand.

Forsinard is a hybrid Norse-Gaelic name meaning "high water," and at 98% water and 2% peat moss the area was long considered good for little but forestation.

Conifers were planted in the late 1970s and a subsequent tax concession introduced by the government of former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s led to huge investment in forestation of the area.

The aim of Thatcher's policy was to boost the forestry industry in the Highlands and create jobs. The popularity of the plan was enhanced by the involvement of celebrities such as singers Cliff Richard and Phil Collins.

But as the wealthy harvested tax breaks, the trees were slowly strangling the natural habitat.

The trees began drying out the bog, diverting water flow. Falling pine needles increased levels of acidity in the numerous lochs, devastating the flora and fauna on which many other species depended.

Conservationists are now working to turn back the clock.

"By felling the timber and creating pools of water we can halve the accelerating damage to the bogs caused by the trees drawing water for the peatlands," Russell said.

"But it is going to take a long time. The damage that was done in the space of the past 30 years could easily take another 3,000 to fully correct."

The European Union-funded program is being led by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It also involves partial funding from the Forestry Commission, Forest Enterprise, Scottish Natural Heritage and Plantlife.

The first stage of the three-year project will clear 750 acres of plantation by April and use the discarded timber to block up the ditches that were dug to drain the peatlands 20 years ago.

Established as a reserve by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in 1995, Forsinard gets about 5,000 visitors a year. A nature trail, the Dubh Lochan Trail, has been laid out to allow visitors access without disturbing ground-nesting birds.

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