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For Peat’s Sake!

September 16th, 2019 Posted by Blogs No Comment yet

Do bogs hold the secret to solving the climate crisis? 2050 Policy volunteer Joe Perry explains more…

In my life outside of 2050 Climate Group I work as the Project Coordinator up in The Flow Country, which is a large area of peatland wilderness in the far north of Scotland. In this blog I’m going to tell you all about the role that peatland restoration could play in balancing the carbon books, and my work in trying to make this beautiful area of the Highlands into a World Heritage Site. While I spend a lot of time talking to people about peatlands, I am not a peatlands scientist. My background is in heritage and, more specifically, communicating the value of heritage to the public, businesses and government. For the World Heritage Site project, I spend a lot of time out and about in Caithness and Sutherland, meeting people who own, live on and work the land, to talk to them about the idea of a World Heritage Site for The Flow Country.

It is important for our team to remember that The Flow Country is not a nature reserve. People have lived here for thousands of years, and these communities need to be able to make a living; for some people, this means keeping sheep, planting trees, and/or building structures on the bog. The straths (meaning ‘river valleys’) of The Flow Country used to house many more people than they do today. This is in part due to the infamous Highland Clearances, which saw many families forcibly removed from their homes to the brutal coastlines of the north Highlands in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The Highland Clearances

In any environmental project, it is vital that we bear in mind that not everyone has the same view or relationship with the land. For many people, climate change and habitat protection are far lower priorities than social and economic degeneration. For peatland scientists, The Flow Country is an incredible natural habitat, and for people worried about climate change, it is the best natural carbon store in the world. However, for a crofter or a forester, this is a landscape that their family have lived in and made their livelihoods from for generations, and this has to be respected.

That being said, The Flow Country (and peatland more broadly) has a vital role to play in responding to the current climate emergency. Not many people, even climate activists, realise this though – so here’s a quick scientific overview of the relationship between peatlands and climate change. (My own knowledge is rather bog standard, but I have the advantage of working with some of the best peatland scientists in the UK and regularly borrow their work for presentations and articles).

The Climate Science of Bogs

The Flow Country is a vast expanse of blanket bog in the north of the Scottish Highlands. This is a globally rare form of peatland, and will hopefully become the UK’s next World Heritage Site. While there is not yet a map for The Flow Country, we are working to create one as part of the World Heritage Site project, it is generally considered to be contiguous with The Peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland (see Figure 3). If this boundary is accepted, The Flow Country would stand at twice the size of The Lake District.

The Peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland (marked in dark grey).

Blanket bog only forms in cool places with plenty of rain. As is the case with all peatlands, the vegetation that grows here doesn’t fully rot away, but builds up to form deep layers of peat. The carbon contained in that vegetation is thereby locked away in the peat. The Flow Country bogs have been growing for over 10,000 years, ever since the glaciers of the last Ice Age melted away, leaving the peat up to 10 meters deep in sections.

There are peatlands all over the world, with the peat consequentially being formed by many different types of vegetation. In The Flow Country, the peatlands are primarily formed by sphagnum mosses. These incredible plants can hold 10 times their weight in liquid and also act as an antiseptic (which is why they were commonly stuffed into wounds by British soldiers in WWI).

When it comes to climate change and peatlands, the key thing to remember is the lifetime of carbon storage. A tree grows relatively quickly and might take in carbon at a faster rate than the same volume of sphagnum moss; however, the carbon stored by that tree will likely return to the atmosphere (if the tree is cut down, burned, rots away etc.) within 40, 50 or maybe several hundred years. This sounds like a long time, but it’s the blink of an eye in the lifetime of a healthy peat bog, which can lock carbon in for tens of thousands of years ideally…

I say “ideally” because this only works if we don’t mess with the bogs. An unhealthy bog – that is one which has been drained for crops (including trees), trampled by cows, or harvested for compost – does not give us environmental benefits. In fact, an unhealthy bog will release more greenhouse gasses than it stores in some instances.

How can The Flow Country help us with the climate crisis?

Flow Country peatlands drained for forestry

For a peatland, The Flow Country is in comparatively remarkable health; however this is more a reflection on the terrible management of most other peatlands worldwide. Indeed, sizeable stretches of The Flow Country have been drained for agriculture and forestry. This has left many areas emitting carbon and polluting nearby rivers with sediment.

During the 60s and 70s, the UK Government encouraged tree planting with tax incentives. Trees were often planted in inappropriate places, as wealthy investors rushed to take advantage of these tax breaks. Locals sometimes refer to the “Terry Wogan” or “Cliff Richard” forests in recognition of the celebrities who ploughed their money into planting in The Flow Country. While it is unlikely that Sir Cliff, or even his accountant, knew exactly what impact his investment would have on the delicate blanket bog habitat, we are still dealing with the ramifications today.

It is quite difficult to get rid of a forest once it has been established for several decades. Even if you removed 100 trees from a square kilometre of bog in a year, you can expect to see thousands of new shoots springing up in exactly the same location the following year. Halting tree regeneration might sound like an unusual target for conservation groups such as the RSPB, and certainly many volunteers are surprised the spend so much of their conservation holidays uprooting baby trees, but it is the best thing for the bog and for climate change in the long run. Other conservation activities include blocking man-made drains in the bog and monitoring and reducing the number of deer in The Flow Country.

Two RSPB employees blocking a drain in a Flow Country bog

Overall, there are reasons to be positive when it comes to peatland management in Scotland. We are world leaders in peatland protection and The Flow Country is very much the jewel in the crown. The Flow Country is just one peatland in the UK, but it stores 3 times the amount of carbon stored in every tree in the UK put together. If we can protect our peatlands, we will lock that carbon into the ground for thousands of years to come.

Restoration efforts are ongoing in many different locations across The Flow Country, often supported by Peatland Action. There is also a growing awareness of the importance of peatlands among the local population, which is helping us in our conversations with landowners and managers. In the future, monetising peatland restoration through carbon credits offers a potentially game changing incentive to landowners and businesses.

A World Heritage Site would not represent a panacea for the social and environmental challenges we are facing in The Flow Country. I do believe, however, that it would offer an appropriate celebration of the natural and cultural heritage of this extraordinary place and encourage people worldwide to think about their own patches of peatland.

I’m always happy to talk to people about this project, so please get in touch if you have any questions. My email is Joe.Perry@2050.scot.