Forsinard Flows LSER case study

forsinard-flows-lser-mapKey Facts

Partners: RSPB Scotland; Highland Council; Highlands & Islands Enterprise; FCS:SNH; Plantlife.

Extent: c.20,000ha

Habitats and species: Blanket bog; open water; red deer management.

Duration: LIFE programme: 1994-2006; ongoing land acquisition, hydrological interventions and long-term reserve management.

Monitoring: Monitoring of LIFE Peatland Management Strategy 2005-15; ongoing reserve management; intensive monitoring of peat dams; SSSI/SAC/SPA condition monitoring; habitat condition monitoring.


RSPB Forsinard Flows comprises nearly 20,000ha of peatlands in Caithness and Sutherland, parts of which were planted with conifer plantations in the 1980s and 90s. The area is of major international importance for biodiversity, in addition to being part of one of Europe’s most significant carbon stores. Restoration projects funded by EU LIFE in 1994-1998 and 2000-2006 led to the removal of 2200ha of conifer plantations on peat, and the blocking of hill and forest drains over 15,600 ha of blanket bog, using 13,000 dams to re-wet degraded peat.

Aims and objectives

Management aims to:

  • remove extensive, inappropriate conifer plantations and thus restore significant areas of deep peat;
  • deliver significant biodiversity, carbon sequestration and water quality/management benefits;
  • enhance landscape and visitor values, community engagement and education and sporting interests (through deer management);
  • use the reserve for research purposes.

Approach to restoration

Around 2,000ha of conifer plantation between eight and 25 years old were felled, with material used to block forest and hill drains, slowing flows and aiding re-wetting of peat. Dams were constructed on major drains using a combination of plastic cofferdam structures and hand- or machine-built peat dams – blocking a total of 200km of drains. Recovery times for blanket bog or wet heath vegetation vary significantly depending on site conditions, land-use history and techniques used in afforestation and subsequent restoration.

The work included considerable engagement and public relations effort, including distributing ‘presentation packs’ to over 20,000 households in Caithness and Sutherland, regular newsletters and the production of a short film.

Key issues

Benefits and ecosystem services

Ecosystem service benefits from the project focus on carbon sequestration, water management and enhancing species/habitats, notably raptors, waders and peatland vegetation communities. The removal of plantations will increase the local red deer range, with knock-on benefits for sporting interest. Ongoing restoration has significant potential to contribute to meeting River Basin / Area Action Plan targets. Peatland management and restoration is a major area of interest in relation to climate change mitigation.

The reserve attracts 4000 visitors annually who contribute £190,000 to the local economy, and the reserve supports 16 full-time equivalent jobs.


RSPB at Abernethy has useful experience and/or particular expertise in:

  • felling conifer plantations to waste at large scale, whilst at the same time ensuring that operations do not adversely affects water quality through phosphate and organic matter in runoff;
  • using Forsinard as an exemplar project and a vehicle for engaging with government and stakeholders to champion the benefits of peatland restoration;
  • public engagement and PR to explain the benefits of peatland restoration to local communities;
  • planning, technical work and monitoring, which can provide a model for similar action.


  • The EU LIFE Peatlands programme was a major impetus for restoration but similar levels of funding cannot be relied upon in the future. However, SRDP grants now support the removal of trees from privately-owned peatland, widening the viability of restoration efforts.
  • Potential lessons
  • Ownership of the site enabled restoration at a scale that could not have been delivered otherwise.
  • Forsinard has been successful partly because of the large scale of the reserve, meaning that concerted action could deliver very significant changes and benefits.
  • Significant attention to detail in planning and technical management of restoration is necessary.
  • Making all restoration work available for local tender delivered local employment and business opportunities.
  • It is important to seek a balance between the need for restoration and wider sustainable economic and community development – and this is important for bringing local people and landowners along.