International Bog Day 2018: Where are we with the restoration of Scotland’s Bogs?

Sunday the 22nd of July is International Bog Day, which of course couldn’t go unmarked without a SPICe ‘Bog Blog’. In the run up to Bog Day, we take a look at the current state of Scotland’s peatlands, why are they important to us, and what actions are being taken to protect and restore them.

What are bogs and why are they important?

 The Scottish Government’s recently published paper, ‘Developing an Environment Strategy for Scotland’ celebrates the uniqueness of Scotland’s natural habitats and landscapes, “from our diverse marine life and spectacular coastal machairs to ancient Scots pine forests, peatlands and heather-clad mountains”.

Bogs are wetlands which are waterlogged by direct rainfall. The slightly broader term, ‘peatlands’, also encompasses fens, where groundwater causes waterlogging. In total, peatlands cover more than 20% of Scotland’s land area. They include a range of soil types and habitats, including blanket bogs, raised bogs and fens. Scotland has about 60% of the UK‟s peatlands, and 4% of Europe’s total peat carbon store.

Peatlands are a crucial part of our environment and natural capital, with benefits including:

  • Carbon sinks: Peatlands in good condition actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere and store carbon. Peat depth varies, with an average between 0.5 and 3 metres deep, but depths up to 8 metres are not unusual. Conversely, degraded peatlands emit CO2 and can become a net source of greenhouse gases. If we lost all of the carbon stored in our peat soils, it would be the equivalent of more than 120 times our annual greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Biodiversity: Active (peat forming) bog is characterised by bryophytes, especially the bog moss, Sphagnum. Those mosses provide the building blocks for habitats for some of our rarest and most threatened wildlife, including rare invertebrates, plants and internationally important breeding bird populations.
  • Natural flood risk management and water quality – In their natural, wet state peatlands act as a sponge, regulating water flows, and helping to minimise the risk of flash flooding. Draining peatlands also reduces the quality of drinking water due to pollution from dissolved compounds.
  • Cultural heritage and wellbeing – peatlands form part of our culture, from lowland raised bogs to the vast blanket bogs of the Flow Country, they are part of our sense of place, and provide recreational opportunities across Scotland.

What state are our bogs in?

Scotland’s peatlands have been damaged by past and present management. Drivers of degradation include drainage, forestry, peat extraction, grazing, burning, development and pollution. Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) estimated that at least 50% of Scotland’s peatland is in poor condition and could benefit from restoration.

Due to the growing understanding of the importance of our peatlands, in particular for carbon storage, peatland restoration has gradually become an increased Scottish Government priority. The Scottish Government’s Climate Change Plan sets ambitious targets to restore 50,000 hectares of degraded peatland by 2020, increasing to 250,000 hectares by 2030. The Committee on Climate Change have also advised that because currently only a fraction of peatland emissions are included in the UK Greenhouse Gas inventory, the future inclusion of all peatland emissions will affect estimates of historical and future emissions and this is “likely to affect Scotland disproportionately”.  It is possible therefore that these inventory changes will affect Scottish emissions targets or require additional action to compensate for peatland emissions.

 The moorland fires around Manchester – sparking debate on peat restoration

 The recent extensive moorland fires on Saddleworth moor are sparking public debate about peatland management, potential linkages to climate change and whether fires will become more frequent and intense in future. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) UK Peatland Programme has produced a position statement on burning and peatlands, and emphasises that wet peatlands with a stable high water table, dominated by peat forming plants such as Sphagnum mosses naturally have lower fire risk. They state that “[T]he most effective long term sustainable solution for addressing wildfire risk on peatlands is to return the sites to fully functioning bog habitat by removing those factors that can cause degradation, such as drainage, intensive grazing and burning.”

 What policies and initiatives are in place to restore and protect peatlands?

 The Climate Plan commits Scottish Government to driving up peatland restoration rates to 20,000 hectares a year to increase our natural carbon sinks, with an expectation that from 2032, in combination with woodland creation, the land-use and forestry sector will “return to being a net [carbon] sink”.

Initiatives underway to support peatland restoration include:

  • Peatland Action grants, administered by SNH
  • The Scottish Rural Development Programme offers funding to restore and manage peatland habitats
  • The IUCN Peatland Code was launched in 2017 to enable peatland restoration projects to market the climate benefits of restoration
  • NGO and partnership projects such as the East Ayrshire Coalfield Environment Initiative and forestry removal in the Flow Country, with funding from sources such as the Heritage Lottery Fund and EU LIFE.
  • Projects funded by Scottish Water to support clean drinking water

Participating in International Bog Day

More information on International Bog Day, including events in Scotland, can be found here. Events include an open day at Red Moss of Balerno, the only raised bog in the City of Edinburgh, which includes pond dipping, quizzes and tours.

Alexa Morrison, Senior Researcher, Brexit, Environment and Rural Affairs.