Reclaiming the land
For several decades in the industrial age there have been attempts to turn vast swathes of Scotland’s peatlands into something “useful”.
Viewed as spare land in need of development, bogs were dug up on a huge scale to burn peat as fuel or fledgling forests were planted to provide more timber.
In the 1980s, personalities like Alex Higgins, Terry Wogan and Cliff Richard were among those planting trees on peatland to offset their tax bills.
Now, much of the 1.8m hectares of the lands across Scotland contain the scars of those failed attempts from criss-crosses of drains, to large gaping gullies.
The negative impact of this has been a reduction in wildlife and plantlife, pollution to water supplies from uncontained peat and the hefty side-effect of releasing tonne upon tonne of greenhouse gases accumulated over thousands of years.
According to figures from ClimateXChange, the amount of CO2 equivalent gases being released every year from Scottish peatlands is as much as 3.57m tonnes.
The Scottish Government’s second Report on Proposals and Policies (RPP2) was launched last month, setting out how ambitious targets to reduce emissions laid out in the law-book would be achieved up until 2027.
Alongside proposals to cut emissions from the housing and transport sectors, there is hope that by the end of the report’s lifetime, about half a megatonne of carbon could be prevented from being released every year from peat bogs.
Although the RPP2 has been criticised in some quarters for lacking ambition and doubts over whether some proposals will be realised, there have been more welcoming words for what has been set out on restoring peatland – it estimates something in the order of £240m needs to be spent on restoration projects by 2027.
Peat is acknowledged as being an excellent source for carbon sequestration - natural carbon storage - due to sphagnum moss absorbing carbon.
When it dies, because the bog is waterlogged and starved of oxygen, the gases are locked in for thousands of years. The peat bogs grow half a millimetre every year and in some places, healthy bogs go as deep as 12m.
Trees, by comparison, are much faster at absorbing carbon, but not as efficient at storing it as they rot away, releasing the gases.
A damaged bog in its worst state releases about 15 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per hectare a year. A healthy bog takes in about 2.8 tonnes – although these are the maximum values and it is more likely that on average, “rewetting” a bog, which involves building it up with peat or wood blocks to raise the water level, will see a net benefit of 4.8 tonnes CO2e per hectare per year.
Clifton Bain, director of the IUCN Peatland Programme, which has been carrying out research over the last three years into the need to restore peatlands, says the figures quoted in the Government’s report could be a conservative estimate.
The RPP2 estimates of about 21,000 hectares a year can be restored by 2027, but Bain said it was possible that as much as 600,000 hectares could be restored in that time, leading to reductions of as much as between 1m and 2.7m tonnes of CO2 equivalent.
And he highlighted the positive effects of restoring it, as a base for wildlife to thrive and a natural way of slowing down flooding.
He said: “The mistake we made in the past is we only valued peatland when it was something else, we attempted to turn it into forestry or agriculture and in the end it was not very good at either of those.
“What we missed was the value of the peatland as a peatland, it’s only now that we’re starting to get the benefit of a healthy peatland, as a benefit to society.
“A damaged peatland is extremely costly; it ranges from losing lambs and grouse chicks into the erosion gullies, losing tonnes of your land as it washes away, it is difficult to walk over, emits vast amounts of carbon and is losing its wildlife.” The Scottish Government is working with its agency Scottish Natural Heritage to develop a plan to encourage private landowners to restore peatland and a Peatland Carbon Code is currently being considered.
As 80 per cent of the UK’s peatland is located in Scotland, much of the research on how to improve restoration has been centred here, and much of that in the northern areas such as an area known as the Flow Country – which holds an estimated fi ve per cent of the world’s peatland resource and includes an RSPB Scotland reserve, Forsinard Flows.
The Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee is one of four parliamentary committees taking evidence on the RPP2 and is looking at the issue of restoration.
Its chairman, Rob Gibson, said the issue was now fi nally starting to be taken seriously, particularly as at the two global earth summits in Doha and Durban it has been agreed that the emissions savings from restoring peatland will be counted in the future alongside that of housing and transport.
He said: “The joke image is receding. We’ve got to deal with the houses, we’ve got to deal with decarbonising transport and the electricity supply. But the soils, which you don’t want to dig up – like in the uplands which have got high-in-carbon soils, and also the peatlands – are now coming into play, because at Durban in 2011 they agreed that the emissions would start to be measured around the world.
“So Scotland is in a strong position. At Doha they fi rmed up that they would very soon start to include them in the calculations.” However, the cost of restoring peatland is a major limiting factor. According to the RPP2, the cost will start at £19m a year and although it will reduce over time, it will still be an estimated £13m by 2027.
The Scottish Government confirmed £1.7m of funding for its agency Scottish Natural Heritage last year and there is money available through the European Common Agricultural Policy – but new sources of income need to be found.
Some costs will be spread across other agencies such as the Forestry Commission and Scottish Water who have a defi nite interest in having healthy peatlands.
But Clifton Bain added: “There’s a whole load of activity going on to look at how businesses could help pay for peatland restoration as their contribution towards tackling climate change.
“There’s the opportunity for the big FTSE 100 companies who are looking to do something for climate change to include peatland restoration within their portfolio of activity. We’re at the early stages. Th e first thing we need to do is make the big companies see that peatlands are as significant as trees if not more in the climate story.” He added that there was also the opportunity for more local businesses to be involved – an example is the whisky manufacturer, the Edrington Group, who have been paying for local peatland restoration.
Bain added: “It’s not areas of peatland that they’d damaged, it was caused by previous damage from agriculture, but they were doing that as a contribution to the local environment.
“Whisky is associated with clean healthy peatlands so that’s the sort of more direct local opportunity where local businesses are helping maintain the environment around them.” Environment Minister Paul Wheelhouse told Holyrood the targets set out would be challenging.
“In the last 20 years we’ve only restored about 40,000 hectares in Scotland, so the scale of ambition is a significant increase in the rate of restoration. We do think it’s achievable, but we’re going to need a lot of cooperation from, particularly, those landowners that have peatland on their estates.” He added that he would be keen to explore further incentives for restoration projects, including using the Scottish Rural Development Programme and said: “We certainly would like to explore opportunities to bring in finance from outside government as well if we can do so, obviously RSPB have put a significant amount of their own resources into restoration in the Flow Country and the Government has been supporting them, but I know a number of members such as Fiona McLeod and Rob Gibson have been asking in the Parliament to explore how we can bring in partners within the business community, perhaps, to support us on that as well.”