UK designates four new sites on World Wetlands Day

The United Kingdom has really done something special for World Wetlands Day. Amongst four new designations announced on 2 February were the 'Caithness & Sutherland Peatlands', in northernmost Scotland. This area may not be widely known internationally (except by 'peat freaks'), but it has a remarkable story and is worthy of consideration as one of the European jewels in the Ramsar List.

During the last 20 years, this 143,539 ha site (easily the largest in the UK Ramsar network) has symbolized the struggle in Britain between the advocates of conservation and wise use and the forces of unsustainable economic exploitation. During the 1980s, huge tax advantages were available to private individuals and companies that invested in intensive planting of conifer forests on the peatlands. This attracted many rich investors - including a number of media celebrities - and vast tracts of peatland were partly drained, ploughed and planted. This work destroyed the structure and hydrology of the areas concerned, leading to losses of their natural functions and values, including their exceptionally important flora and fauna. The scandalous part is that the forestry could never be sustainable, since the conditions were totally unsuitable for tree growth. People were literally paid from the state budget to plant trees that would never have any econmic return, whilst destroying the ecology and hydrology of an internationally important peatland complex. Conservationists mounted a huge fight against this situation, and the tax loophole was closed in the early 1990s, but not before thousands of hectares had been destroyed or seriously damaged. It is a tribute to the struggle of many individuals and organisations concerned with the conservation and wise use of wetlands that the damage has been stopped, that the remaining parts have been given Ramsar and EU Special Protection Area status, and that public funds are now being used to support truly sustainable management practices.

The four newly-designated Ramsar sites, dated as of 2 February 1999, are:

Caithness & Sutherland Peatlands, Scotland, 143,539 ha, 58.20N 03.56W
Loch of Inch & Torrs Warren, Scotland, 2,111 ha, 54.50N 04.52W
Pevensey Levels, England, 3,578 ha, 50.50N 00.21E
Lough Foyle, Northern Ireland, 2,204 ha, 55.05N 0702W

-- reported by Tim Jones, Regional Coordinator for Europe

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