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Scotland’s peatlands: what’s all the fuss about?

Over one fifth of Scotland’s land area is covered by peatlands - predominantly blanket bogs. The most extensive areas are found in the northern and western Highlands and Islands, with those in Caithness and Sutherland among the largest and most intact in the world today.  Raised bogs are mostly confined to lowlands in the Central Belt and Grampian Plain.  
We are coming to realise the importance of our peatlands. As stores of carbon they are important in helping to tackle climate warming and as the raw ingredient of rural farming, tourism and crofting they are vital to the economy.  They also offer a role in flood regulation and water quality and support nationally and internationally important biodiversity.  
Peatlands are threatened by a number of human activities; notably drainage for agriculture and forestry, over-grazing, burning and more recently by some renewable energy developments.  In the past, peatlands were regarded as having little value and policy actively drove their destruction with the aim to encourage more “productive uses.” This has led to a situation where many of the benefits described above have been lost or could be lost in the future.  Indeed, many of Scotland’s bogs are already in poor condition and as such could benefit from restoration of some kind.  
Peatland Restoration in Scotland: the policy context 

Peatland restoration has multiple aims and multiple potential benefits. The Land Use Strategy (LUS), required by section 57 of the Climate Change Act, sets in place a vision for the better integration of different types of land uses in Scotland. Although the strategy encourages multiple uses, it specifies that where land is highly suitable for one primary use (such as carbon storage) this value should be recognised in decision making. Peatlands are specifically mentioned for their importance in the context of climate change.  Proposal 9 of the LUS is to develop a methodology to take account of changes in soil carbon for: carbon accounting purposes; 
improved understanding of potential benefits from conservation and management of carbon rich soils; and
delivering measures to help secure long-term management of all land-based carbon stores.

The Scottish Government published its Second Report on Proposals and Policies setting out how it would meet its emissions targets.   It includes a number of references to the role of peatlands in reducing greenhouse gas emissions; specifically noting scientific, partnership and restoration challenges. These are currently being addressed by the National Peatland Plan (currently out for consultation) led by SNH and a wide group of stakeholders.

SNH’s Peatland ACTION project is taking the restoration challenge head-on
As lead adviser to the Scottish Government on peatland restoration Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) was allocated £5 million from the Green Stimulus Package for spend in 2014/15.  The “Peatland ACTION” project was set up with SNH administering the funding to:
  • restore and manage peatlands to maintain carbon stores and encourage carbon sequestration (with a target of 6500 ha peatland restoration by March 2015); 
  • restore peatland ecosystem functions; 
  • enhance peatland ecosystem resilience to climate change; and 
  • build restoration capacity and understanding amongst land managers, contractors, advisors and the public. 
  • Restoration generally involves action to halt or where possible reverse the cause(s) of degradation and raise water levels. For example, ditch blocking, scrub removal or changes to grazing and/or muirburn may be sufficient to raise the water table and allow bog vegetation to re-establish in some peatlands. 
  • Where damage is more severe, restoration may require reseeding of bare peat, sometimes holding the peat together using an artificial substrate to help stabilise the surface. Recent restoration projects in Scotland (e.g. Forsinard in the Flow Country) have also involved the removal of forestry plantations.
  • Brash crushed and furrows dammed to raise water levels after clearance of forestry on blanket peat at Bhaird, Sutherland.
As of June 2014, Peatland ACTION project progress is as follows:  
  • 4890 ha are benefiting from practical restoration across 51 sites;
  • 56 grants or management agreements have been offered and accepted; and
  • 29,700 ha are benefiting from feasibility study, survey or monitoring (most of this is in preparation for practical restoration work).
The last formal applications deadline was on the 11th of June 2014, and the project was in receipt of 47 new applications reflecting continued interest in peatland restoration across the Scottish land management sector.
Peatland ACTION has kick-started the draft National Peatland Plan’s restoration quest, and will continue beyond March 2015 in an awareness raising and facilitating role. Once available the new Scottish Rural Development Programme (SRDP) will become the main method of funding to restore and manage peatland habitats. You can contact the Peatland ACTION team by email: PeatlandACTION@snh.gov.uk and we would love to hear your views on the National Peatland Plan - view the consultation here.

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