Peatlands: the jewels in Scotland’s crown, Sue Walker

OVER a fifth of Scotland is covered with the soft brown hues of our peatlands, streaked with the yellows, greens and pinks of the mosses that make this landscape so distinctive.

Since the last Ice Age, nearly 10,000 years ago, they have grown and spread, soaking up our frequent northern rainfall to create this multi-coloured blanket.

Those same peatlands have shaped the lives of the people who lived in many parts of Scotland, too. They fuelled their fires, provided grazing for their beasts, and used its plants and animals for food and medicine.

Yet, over time, the pressures on those peatlands have increased – large-scale forestry was planted, land was drained for farming, and hills were turned over to sheep grazing.

Peatlands are still being stripped for horticulture, and pressure from large deer population is leading to significant damage from trampling in some areas. Now, over 75 per cent of our precious peatlands are considered to be degraded, losing water – their lifeblood, drying out and eroding.

Peatlands play a vital role in locking up carbon, to help tackle climate change; they are home to many plants and animals that can live nowhere else; they help alleviate flooding; and they help make our source water cleaner and clearer.

Thankfully, there are ways we can reverse the damage. There is a commitment from the Scottish Government (here) to restore 250,000 hectares of the country’s peatlands by 2030, investing £250 million to make it happen.

Peatland ACTION, a partnership of organisations led by [Scottish Government agency] NatureScot, is leading the work to achieve this target. It is working with landowners and communities across Scotland to block those ditches, remove that forestry, re-cover the eroded peat and help the sphagnum mosses to regenerate and spread again.

The Assynt Foundation is working with Peatland ACTION to restore almost 150 hectares of degraded peatland on Cul Mor, one of the iconic mountains in Inverpolly – loved by hillwalkers, photographers and wildlife watchers. The mountain sits on the Drumrunie Estate, now in community ownership, thanks to the Foundation.

The project will involve blocking over 2,000 gullies to stop water pouring out of the bogs, helping to keep it wet and give mosses the right conditions to grow again.

There are huge areas of bare peat, often surrounded by mini-cliffs of peat called ‘hags’ that quickly erode and make things worse. By ‘reprofiling’ these hags so that they are less steep, and re-covering the bare peat with sphagnum mosses, they can effectively stitch the blanket together again.

It’s challenging work, often in extreme weather conditions, that needs highly-trained operators to get it right.

But the effects are dramatic, and, over just a few years, will make a big difference – not only to the look of the land but to the plants and animals that can live there.

Ensuring that deer numbers are kept low enough, after the work is done, will also be an important part of the healing process. The Assynt Foundation is hoping that more birds – such as curlew, dunlin and golden plover – will come to breed, encouraged by the increase in insects and other invertebrates that the wetter conditions will bring.

Explaining the project, Lewis MacAskill, chair of the Assynt Foundation, said: “One of the founding cornerstone objectives of the Assynt Foundation is to manage community land and associated assets for the benefit of the community, as an important part of the protection and sustainable development of Scotland’s natural environment.

“The Cul Mor restoration project will therefore provide a significant contribution towards the Foundation’s work in a sustainable way.

“This is one of the largest peatland restoration projects in north-west Scotland, to date. NatureScot have been very helpful and supportive throughout the whole Peatland ACTION application process. This is the first of what we hope will be many.”

This is just one of hundreds of projects that have been delivered through Peatland ACTION funding, so far setting over 35,000 hectares of degraded peatland in Scotland on the road to recovery.

Landowners have got on board – from small community groups to some of the largest estates in the country.

What they have in common is the understanding that peatland restoration benefits everyone.

Sue Walker is communications officer at Peatland ACTION.

This is a version of an article published on the website of NatureScot, here, for which grateful thanks, to both Peatland ACTION and NatureScot.

Pictured: Sphagnum moss, Picture credit: Lorne Gill / NatureScot

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