Seen for years as being bleak, unproductive waste-ground, the image of Scotland’s peatlands, whether upland or lowland, has not always been favourable. Indeed, it is only since society has come to understand the natural environment as a dynamic life-support system, rather than a store of natural resources to be exploited for human advancement, that we have really started to value and love our peat bogs.
Peat is fairly simple stuff. It forms in waterlogged conditions. It is layers and layers of dead organic matter that has built up over time because it has not decomposed in the normal way. This is because the watery conditions exclude oxygen; a vital component of decomposition. Scotland is wet, cool and has topography that allows water to lie, so we have a lot of peat.
Since vegetation is full of carbon, and dead vegetation which does not decompose retains that carbon, it turns out to be a good carbon store. Provided the watery seal is not broken to any great extent, peatlands will lock away and store carbon indefinitely. This is the first clue to why we value peatlands today.
As well as a carbon store, peatlands have a role to play in natural flood management too. Sphagnum moss, a prominent plant of most peatlands, acts like a sponge storing considerable amounts of rainwater and releasing it slowly as it dries out. While already saturated peat admittedly won’t store any more water, sphagnum that is not at full water-holding capacity, say at the end of the summer, will help slow the flow of water from the uplands into our river systems. The more water that is slowed down in flood conditions, the less damage it is likely to do to riverbeds and banks, the fewer trees it is likely to uproot and the less overspill and damage is likely to happen further downstream.
Intact peatlands produce cleaner water than eroding peatlands, so are better for water quality. This reduces the cost of water treatment in drinking water catchments and can improve the quality of freshwater fisheries. Finally, peatlands are also home to some of our most rare habitats and species, as well as being spectacularly beautiful in places.
There are lots of good reasons to value and love our peatlands, but unfortunately they are not all in the best of condition. The reason for this is that the dominant narrative around peatlands for so long was, as indicated at the start of this blog, that society as a whole viewed them as unproductive ground ripe for improvement. The post-war period in the United Kingdom saw public policy introduced which was aimed at rectifying the ‘unproductive ground’ situation. All land was to be as productive as it could be and in the case of peatland, landowners and managers drained it to meet that aspiration, often aided by up to 90% grant funding. In hindsight (a marvellous thing…) the policy was largely flawed. Even in a drained state, deep peat areas were never particularly good at growing trees and, while grazing productivity was improved, the gains were marginal.
Today, knowing what we know now, we are in a position to rectify past action, and there is funding and practical help available to achieve this. The Scottish Government have announced £8 million of funding for the year April 2017 to March 2018 to be spent through Scottish Natural Heritage’s very successful Peatland Action Project, which offers advice and support into the bargain. On top of this there is around £2 million available for ditching blocking through the Scotland Rural Development Programme, and the IUCN UK’s Peatland Code also aims to offer advice, support and funding from private sector companies wishing to fund peatland restoration.
To help our members assess their peatland areas, apply for funding and gain access to restoration expertise, Scottish Land & Estates will be running a series of regional events this Spring and Autumn.
More details on these events will be available shortly, but look out for our first one on 20 March at Edinglassie Estate in Aberdeenshire.
Anne Gray, Senior Policy Officer (Land Use & Environment)