Why we should care about peat

Ben DolphinPeat. Don’t you just love it? Well, if you’re a hillwalker there’s a good chance that you don’t, because when it’s exposed at the surface or when it comes served with its standard topping of spongy luminous moss, it can be a thing of real anguish. It’s difficult to love something that swallows your feet, stinks to high heaven and whose acidic character hastens your boots’ demise. And yet peat is vitally important stuff, so when that soggy black morass makes the headlines (as it has done twice in the last month) it’s definitely worth taking notice.

What is peat?

Peat is a type of soil composed mainly of dead vegetation such as grass, moss and rushes. On a warm woodland floor where there is plenty of oxygen available for bacteria and other detritivores (organisms that feed off dead matter) to survive, dead vegetation decomposes quickly. But in the cold, wet, acidic, oxygen-starved conditions of a peat bog, the decomposition process is extremely slow to the point of being non-existent.

A cross section of shallow peat on Mount Battock, drying out due to quarrying of the rock below.

Layer upon layer of dead organic matter accumulates faster than it can be broken down, and over time it is compressed and pickled to form peat. The depths of these peat deposits vary across Scotland depending upon local conditions but on some bogs it can be as much as ten metres! That’s a staggering depth when you consider that peat accumulates at the agonisingly slow rate of around 1mm per year. Put simply, the volumes of peat we’re ‘consuming’ cannot be replaced in our lifetimes because even a metre’s worth could take 1000 years to replace.

Where can I find it?

Dried peat is an excellent growing medium for garden plants, and in the 1970s it became the compost of choice for both commercial and domestic gardeners. So although we don’t all have peat under our gardens, many of us over a certain age will likely have been introduced to it in precisely such a place. But if you’re up in the hills week after week then it probably feels as though peat is ubiquitous in Scotland.

Almost a quarter of Scotland’s land area is covered in peat, most of which is found in two types of bog – blanket and raised. Blanket bog is the more extensive and tends to form what it says – a blanket of bog across flat or gently undulating terrain where the climate is cool and the high rainfall leads to waterlogging. You will find it scattered across Scotland but there are notable concentrations on Skye, Lewis, Rannoch Moor, in Dumfries & Galloway and the Cairngorms, but none of those compare to the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland, which at around 1500 square miles is believed to be the largest expanse of blanket bog in the world. On a global scale blanket bog is rare but the UK has an incredible 15% of the world total.

Raised bogs are exactly that. They tend to form in waterlogged depressions in the landscape where drainage is poor and, over time, as the dead vegetation accumulates, the peat forms a pronounced dome rising up above the surrounding land. Raised bogs have deeper peat deposits than blanket bog and generally began to form earlier after the last ice age retreated. Though they can be large in area, raised bogs usually form isolated features in the landscape – resembling islands rather than blankets, and they’re more of a feature of the Central Lowlands, Aberdeenshire and coastal Dumfries & Galloway.

Standing on Ben Griam Beg above the Flow Country, possibly the world’s largest expanse of blanket bog.

Why should I care about it?

Peat is sponge-like in its ability to absorb and retain water, and our bogs therefore have a huge role to play not only in mitigating or preventing flooding downstream but also in filtering our drinking water. 70% of all the drinking water in Britain originates in upland catchments.

Despite initial appearances peat bogs are also havens for wildlife, especially for amphibians and invertebrates such as butterflies, spiders, dragonflies and damselflies and…..yes…..midges. Not everyone is sold on invertebrates I admit, but these and other lowly organisms in turn sustain birds like the curlew, golden plover, dunlin and red-throated diver, while short eared owls and hen harriers silently quarter their way across the bogs.

But perhaps the most important thing about peat, way more so than its relationship with single malt I’m afraid, is its role in combating climate change. Because peat is made from dead organisms it contains carbon, and a lot of it! That’s the reason it burns so well and why with another 300 million years or so of heat and compaction it would turn into coal.

Worldwide, peat bogs cover around 3% of the earth’s surface but they hold twice as much carbon as all of the world’s forests combined. According to Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), Scotland’s peat soils alone contain 25 times as much carbon as all the plant life in the UK, but for a substance so vitally important in combating climate change it’s shocking just how much of it we have lost.

UK-wide, around 90% of peat bogs have been lost over the past century. Some have been drained to make the land more suitable for agriculture, some have had tax-break conifer plantations planted on top of them, some have been burned for grouse moors and others have been plundered for fuel or horticulture.

Blawhorn Moss National Nature Reserve in West Lothian – a lowland raised bog

But in a double whammy of bad news, of those that remain, 80% are in a degraded or damaged condition. Lowland raised bogs in particular have suffered greatly at the hands of industry and many are now drying out. As the water content of peat decreases the oxygen content increases, kickstarting a decomposition process that has effectively been on hold for thousands of years. Vast quantities of carbon and methane, both greenhouse gases, are then released into the atmosphere.

One step forward

Given how slowly peat bogs take to form, their fortunes cannot be turned around overnight. It takes teams of dedicated individuals and charitable organisations (such as Butterfly Conservation’s ‘Bog Squad’) years to arrest the decline, and even then there is no guarantee of success thereafter. But happily this is something that has been quietly underway for a long time now and if you’ve visited a bog such as Flanders Moss in Stirling, Easter Inch Moss in West Lothian or even Glen Affric in the highlands, you may well have seen corrugated plastic or piles of birch logs in a ditch. These are artificial dams installed into former man-made drainage ditches in an effort to ‘re-wet’ the bogs by raising the water table and preventing them from drying out.

That all takes time and money and this is where the first headline of recent weeks comes in, with the Scottish Government’s announcement of an £8m fund towards restoring 8000 hectares of peat bog in 2017/2018. It builds on SNH’s Peatland Action work, which has improved the state of 10,000 hectares of peatlands since 2013 and which ultimately aims to restore 250,000 hectares by 2032.

Two steps back?

However, 15 days after that announcement, peat was in the headlines again, and anyone who saw both stories could have been forgiven for thinking they were receiving mixed messages about the importance of peat in the life of the nation.

Midlothian Council renewed an application from Westland Horticulture to extract a mindblowing 100,000 cubic metres of peat every year for the next 25 years from Auchencorth Moss, a rare lowland raised bog just outside Edinburgh. There was an understandable backlash against Midlothian Council from conservation groups but it does seem that the Council’s hands were tied by the original planning application in 1986. It stipulated that if any extra constraints were put on extraction when the conditions attached to the original planning consent came up for review, the company in question should be compensated.

Peat bog restoration at Easter Inch Moss, West Lothian

Set against the backdrop of a projected £12.9 million shortfall in Midlothian’s budget in the next year, prompting reviews of the affordability of Christmas lights and grass cutting and the Council’s contribution to the Pentland Hills Regional Park, I dare say the prospect of massive financial compensation wasn’t terribly attractive. The Scottish Green Party did ask parliamentary questions back in 2016 as to whether the planning application could be called in but Kevin Stewart, the Minister for Local Government and Housing replied that:

‘Scottish Ministers have a general power to intervene by calling in an application for their own determination. In practice though, ministers will exercise this power very sparingly, recognising and respecting the important role of local authorities in making decisions on the future development of their areas. At this time it is not ministers’ intention to call in this application.’

Deferring to local democracy isn’t entirely convincing given the Scottish Government had no such qualms about stepping in when the whole Trump debacle was underway at the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire. Back then, a nationally important Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) was to be adversely impacted by a golf development but the Scottish Government argued it should go ahead because it was a matter of national importance. That’s right, a golf course of national importance. If Scotland’s carbon targets, nature reserves and the integrity of its SSSIs aren’t of national importance then one wonders what is?

To be fair, presumably if ministers did call in the application and refuse consent they would still be legally obliged to compensate the company for the subsequent loss of income. It would doubtless be costly to buy them out till 2042 but there is a UK precedent for such action. In 2002 the UK Government bought out the 20 year extraction rights of Horticulture giant, Scotts, for three sites in England at a cost of £17.3m.

It certainly does seem bonkers to be spending lots of money on one hand to recover damaged peatlands, only to stand by on the other and watch industrial extraction continue. The Scottish Wildlife Trust stated that the operations at Auchencorth represent a fifth of carbon emissions from all peat extraction in Scotland. If you’ll excuse the peat pun, that’s not to be sniffed at!

Lowland raised bog at Bankhead Moss, Fife. A wildlife haven.

Calls have therefore been made to at least close the legal loophole that allows extraction to continue when mineral permissions are reviewed like this. And while accusations are being made that both local and national governments are contravening national planning policy, blame should undoubtedly be directed at companies like Westland for making a conscious choice to continue the process of extracting peat for horticulture. Viable alternatives are available and both commercial and domestic customers are already moving towards them.

There’s an interesting record of a debate in the Scottish parliament on peat extraction (for horticulture) from May 2015, with a worthwhile contribution from Graeme Dey, the MSP for Angus South. He explains how a successful fruit grower in his constituency had managed to reduce its dependence on peat by 40% by using an alternative growing medium derived from coconut fibre, called coir. But he goes on to explain how smaller companies don’t have the same resources to devote to trialling new growing mediums in the timescales demanded of them, and that peat use therefore needs to be phased out gradually.

Pressing as the matter is, a phased approach to halting peat’s use in horticulture seems more realistic but I do worry that in these austere times this is where environmental stewardship is headed, being viewed as an expensive luxury or an obstacle to economic growth that governments can ill afford. That being the case, the pressure exerted from the grass roots is more important than ever. And in the case of peat protection in Scotland and beyond, the best thing any of us can do on a day to day basis is cut off the demand for peat-based products completely. We should check horticulture product labelling carefully and not buy compost that contains peat, regardless of whether it comes from the UK, Ireland or elsewhere in the world.

All our futures depend upon peat to some extent and, as with most other natural resources in this world, we need to face up to the fact that convenience and cheapness are short term solutions that do us no good in the long term, because its abundance is an illusion.

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