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2 Oct 2019

The importance of peat

Written by Stuart Brooks
Ben Lomond
Stuart Brooks, our Head of Conservation and Policy, is chairing the IUCN UK Peatland Conference in Belfast this week. Below he explains why it’s now time for peatland to get the recognition it deserves.

Peatlands have been called a Cinderella habitat; their beauty invisible, abused and hard working, with no acknowledgement of their contribution. Perhaps their time has finally come to get the recognition and care they deserve.

An indication of this came in April when the United Nations agreed to the first global resolution on peatlands, urging ‘Member States and other stakeholders to give greater emphasis to the conservation, sustainable management and restoration of peatlands worldwide’. This has been triggered by the greater understanding of their role in regulating our climate.

Peatland on Ben Lomond
Peatland on Ben Lomond

Although peatlands only cover 3% of the world’s land mass they accumulate and store more than twice the amount of carbon as all the world’s forests. They’re able to do this by the slow accumulation of dead plant material as peat, which builds up in layer upon layer under waterlogged conditions. In fact, they store as much carbon as all the other vegetation types combined.

But when peatlands are drained or burned, they release that stored carbon back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. This is a double whammy as not only are we turning off a potential carbon sink, we’re releasing thousands of years of stored carbon into the atmosphere.

It’s estimated that damaged peatlands account for around 6% of all anthropogenic carbon emissions worldwide. Scotland is a particularly peaty place, covering about 25% of our land in lowland raised bogs and upland blanket bog.

Blanket bog
Blanket bog

This was seen as a hindrance to development in the past, and as a result the majority of our peatlands have been damaged by drainage, burning, peat extraction for horticulture, fuel and conversion to agriculture.

More recent impacts are from conversion to commercial forestry, windfarms and access tracks for estate management. Many of these impacts are ongoing and the Trust needs to be vigilant and responsible in our role as gardener, land manager and protector of Scotland’s natural heritage. We must ensure we follow best practice for access design, continue to operate our gardens on a peat-free basis and work with decision makers to protect peatlands from development and conversion.

If recognition of the problem is the first stage on the journey to change, we’re definitely beyond that point now. In 2018 the UK Peatland Strategy was published, and England, Wales and Scotland are at various stages of implementing national plans. We hope that next week’s conference will provide encouragement to develop a plan for Northern Ireland.

“Scotland is ahead of the game and can genuinely be seen as one of the world leaders.”
Stuart Brooks, Head of Conservation and Policy

Since 2012 the Scottish Government has funded peatland restoration work committing a further £11 million this year through its Peatland Action scheme administered by Scottish Natural Heritage. This investment will help support Scotland’s ambitious but necessary climate change targets of becoming net-zero by 2045. The role that peatlands play in storing and sequestering carbon will be vital in achieving that.

The National Trust for Scotland has benefited from Peatland Action funding, supporting restoration work at Ben Lomond, Goatfell on Arran and Ben Lawers. Plans are in place for restoration works at Mar Lodge Estate National Nature Reserve and Grey Mare’s Tail. Across the 16,000 hectares of peatland in Trust stewardship, we conservatively estimate over 25,000 tonnes of carbon are being sequestered each year which is equivalent to a town of 2,000 households.

We’ve been undertaking peatland restoration work at a range of sites across Scotland.
We’ve been undertaking peatland restoration work at a range of sites across Scotland.

Across our properties and policy the Trust is making a major contribution to peatland conservation and climate change. This ambition is captured in our Plan for Nature.

Whilst there is more to do, we’re proud of our achievements to date and will continue to work towards a position where all of our damaged peatlands are restored. Society benefits from wet peatlands in good condition.

The call for action has been made to reverse the loss of biodiversity and slow down climate change, and peatlands are now featuring as part of that story.

However, we know that action on the scale required is going to be difficult. Public funding for agriculture needs to shift to payments for environmental benefits, woodland expansion needs to avoid peat soils, the market for horticultural peat needs to transition to peat-free growing media, burning on peatlands should be regulated and renewable energy and other development projects should not impact on deep peat or high nature conservation areas.

Cinderella might be free but she has much work still to do.

Volunteers building peat dams at Ben Lomond.
Volunteers building peat dams at Ben Lomond.

The IUCN UK Peatland conference runs from 1–3 October at the Europa Hotel, Belfast.