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OUT AND ABOUT WITH RALPH: Watching the trees come and go in the Flow Country

By Ben MacGregor

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The peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland are slowly returning to their natural state, as Ralph takes a walk up Ben Griam Beg to get a better look

A view from Ben Griam Beg.
A view from Ben Griam Beg.

The Strath Halladale road is not one I enjoy driving, being narrow, twisty and blind. But it is a joy to cycle, and you can really appreciate the quiet landscape of crofts, river, low moors and fields of sheep fringed by trees.

I was heading out on a route I hadn’t taken for a few years, and left the car near Bighouse.

Ben Griam Beg is an enigmatic hill with its ancient fort on the summit and remains of settlement walls extending a long way down. Bare, and very exposed, now the only denizens are ptarmigan.

And yes, these birds of the high tops are still there, this is one of the lowest hills on which they are found in Scotland. Their grey and white plumage blends in perfectly with the dark rock crusted in white lichen, and in total I saw five birds, flying low – they are quite tame and others undoubtedly did not move from their hiding places.

Few people climb the hill, there is no path, and those that do make their way in from Forsinard or the road to the east. The map, though, suggests an obvious route from the north. I’ve done this a few times but I doubt that anybody else has!

Leaving the fertile strath behind, I turned up the old forest road which leads out onto the Flows for miles and miles.

The road towards the Griams.
The road towards the Griams.

I first knew this country before the Flow Country plantings of the 1980s, a huge stretch of moorland crossed only by a few drainage ditches. Then came the new forest roads and the trees, and to cycle this way meant mile after mile of dense, low-growing pine and spruce.

Now, with the importance of the peatlands at last recognised, much of the forestry has been cleared in a vast restoration scheme.

Cresting the hill and leaving the last trees behind, the huge scale of landscape engineering that was attempted in the 1980s still amazes me. Cleared forestry stretches to the horizon as you cycle the high track, now with exhilarating views on all sides.

As well as the spruce, attempts were made to plant some deciduous trees around the edges. They were too exposed, the strains were wrong, and 99 per cent of them died.

A few small gnarled trees struggle on here and there, maybe one in a thousand has become a fine specimen birch or rowan, now growing in the open.

A rare fine birch.
A rare fine birch.

The RSPB has been at the forefront of the restoration but a couple of square miles of forest under different ownership still stands at the foot of Griam Beg. After many miles of open skies I turned into the dark plantations, to wind along a track which comes to an end as the slopes begin to rise.

It is not an easy route to the edge of the forest, the boggy rides are overgrown with dense tussocks of grass and heather. Your only hope of progress is to find a narrow deer trod heading in the right direction, and it is quite a maze.

The deer fences seem to have little purpose now, there are as many animals in the forest as on the open hill. Protection against ticks is advisable. There are badgers, too, with a small sett on a dry rise.

Eventually I struggled to the forest edge where a high step-stile over the fence led to slightly less-rough open ground. Now it was a simple climb to the summit, trying to keep on exposed ridges where the walking was easier.

It’s a remarkably cold and wind-blown hill with a feel of being at least 1000 feet higher, and a spectacular view over the Flow Country lochans and hills, backed by the Knockfin Heights, Morven and Ben Armine.

Rainbow over the flows.
Rainbow over the flows.

A shower was moving in, there was shelter just below the top and I watched the columns of rain twisting and writhing towards Forsinard as mist began to blow past. More than a hint of autumn!

It was quicker going down and I’d carefully memorised my return route through the forest to the bike. Warm sun appeared again. I pedalled back along the long miles of track through the achingly empty country as a low rainbow arched to the north.

I’d seen stalkers out near the River Dyke, as I pedalled down the strath they came past, a truck with a trailer containing an argocat and at least two dead stags.

The Flows have only ever been regarded as landscapes to be exploited for forestry or huge wind farms. Hopefully Unesco world heritage status will be granted and, at last, these landscapes will be recognised for the huge intrinsic value they have.

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