Scotland is uniquely placed to capitalise on peatland restoration as a nature-based solution to climate change. The UK has around 13% of the world's blanket bogs and more than 60% of these are in Scotland, with peatland soils covering 20% of Scotland’s land. But much of this peat, an estimated 80%, is damaged and degraded due to land use practices of the past.
There is an increasing urgency to restore damaged peatland and return this natural resource to carbon sink status, rather than a net source of carbon emissions. To give an idea of the potential impact of peatland restoration, restoring all of the currently known areas of bare peat in Scotland would save the same emissions as produced by 755,000 flights between Edinburgh and London every year. This is why the Peatland Action project, now the Peatland ACTION programme, began in 2012 led by Scottish Government, and delivered in partnership with NatureScot, Forestry and Land Scotland, Scottish Water, Cairngorms National Park Authority and Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park Authority.
But what does peatland restoration actually involve? Here, pun intended, we dig a little deeper into practical peatland restoration techniques and the wide-ranging benefits of peatland restoration, a rapidly growing area of interest for our clients in the rural sector.
How do you restore peatland?
Although peat is predominantly found in the north of Scotland, restoration is not only relevant to blanket peat bogs in the far highlands. Scotland’s soil types are mapped at a broad scale on the Carbon and peatland 2016 map and the Soil maps of Scotland showing the distribution of peat and peatland habitats across the country. Peatland ACTION has reported work on sites ranging from exposed upland blanket peat, forest to bog conversions and lowland raised bogs found close to urban areas or farmland, so there is some diversity in the type of land that is suitable for restoration. The most appropriate restoration solution will depend on the condition, location and current use of the peatland area.
There are a variety of techniques available to help rejuvenate damaged peatland. Reducing drainage and slowing water flow on peatland helps to raise the water table and re-wet the area, allowing the peat-building mosses, called sphagnums, to re-establish; which is key to reinstating the carbon storage abilities of peat. This can be achieved by:
- blocking man-made drainage ditches using wave dams;
- hag and gully blocking with peat dams;
- hag reprofiling and surface smoothing;
- switching off drainage pumps and restoring inflows;
- bare peat restoration using mulch, geo-jute covering, or other alternatives, such as wool fleece (currently being trialled), to restore areas of exposed peat.
Expert help is available from Peatland ACTION Project Officers to identify the best restoration techniques for a specific location. The Officers provide project development support from the initial feasibility study to completion of the project. They offer local knowledge and can carry out a free peat depth and condition survey as a first step to restoration.
Why does peatland restoration matter?
Peatland soils are a huge store of carbon, and in Scotland they are estimated to store 1,600 million tonnes of carbon. When they are degraded the peat has started to dry out causing the carbon to be released as greenhouses gases into the atmosphere, which contributes to climate change. By restoring Scotland’s peatlands these emissions can begin to be mitigated and the habitats can restart the process of naturally capturing and storing carbon, providing a clear nature-based solution to the twin crises of climate change and biodiversity loss.
Peatland restoration is not only good for carbon storage though. There are many other environmental and potentially commercial benefits. Research suggests that peatlands in favourable condition help reduce wildfire and flood risk, stop soil erosion, improve water quality - as much of our drinking water filters through peatland catchments – and, as they are home to unique wildlife, peatlands are internationally important habitats for biodiversity conservation. Peatlands form an essential part of Scotland’s landscape and contribute to biodiversity by increasing the abundance of plants and insects, including crane flies which are a vitally important source of food for red grouse and many other upland birds.
The National Peatland Plan further explains how peatlands are vital to Scotland’s cultural and natural heritage. Peatlands have a role in rural farming, sports, tourism and crofting. Peat is also used to create the distinctive flavour of island whiskies. This process uses less than 1 per cent of all peat extracted in the UK and the industry makes a significant contribution to economic growth in Scotland.
For the landowner, peatland restoration projects can have a number of other benefits. These projects can generate an income through corporate involvement with nature based solutions, potential Peatland Code certification and the sale of carbon credits to voluntary carbon markets buyers.
Overall, peatlands are essential to the nation’s wellbeing and natural capital. Restoration projects will make a significant contribution to much needed peatland regeneration and a range of funding is available to landowners interested in backing the net zero ambition through peatland restoration.
The final article in our peatland restoration series will look at the potential of the Peatland Carbon Code to further incentivise and revolutionise peatland restoration in Scotland. The UK Land Carbon Registry currently has 24 peat projects either validated or under development. 13 of these projects are in Scotland, and there is potential for many more.
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Harper Macleod LLP’s rural team is leading the way on peatland restoration projects. Please contact a member of the team for advice on the legal aspects of peatland restoration.
Other articles in this series