Wherever peat soils form - there is a conservation story - often of loss and damage, occasionally of restoration and hope. They form a fragile home for distinctive and often threatened wildlife and the properties of the peat provide life-giving benefits for us. Concluding our series on peatlands, Clifton Bain, Director of the IUCN UK Peatland Programme reflects on a 30-year career working to save our bogs.
I often reflect that peatlands have played a central role in my 30 years of working with RSPB. Whilst this has been more through circumstance than choice, I have come to respect this special habitat for the role it plays in providing society with essential services. In exploration terms, I started big, with my first true peatland experience in the Flow Country blanket bogs – the vastness and intensity of this wildlife spectacle was simply overwhelming. Throughout my career, from the early battles with forestry plantations in the Flow Country to commercial mining of peat and more recently the ill-placed development of windfarms, the threats to peatlands seem never ending.
Forsinard - a landscape of contrasts and the classic example of the wrong tree in the wrong place
For the last nine years the RSPB has given me the pleasure of fronting a partnership of organisations, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature UK Peatland Programme (IUCNUKPP). It may be a mouthful, but is also part of a respected global nature conservation body that brings environmental bodies and governments together. A look at the website of the Peatland Programme shows the breadth of activity and the huge range of organisations involved.
Many of the problems facing peatlands stems from the view held of them by 18th Century agricultural reformers as unproductive, worthless wasteland. But even back then, as massive programmes of drainage and attempts at ‘improvement’ began there were objections from local people who knew the peatlands as rich providers of game and useful materials. Today, with over 80% of UK peatlands in a damaged state, people are again highlighting the true benefits of our peatlands for wildlife, climate change and water. The good news is that Governments around the world have started to notice, taking action not just to protect peatlands but help put them back on the road to recovery through restoration works.
Dove Stone - our hills lock up carbon in the peat and are a source of the water we depend on. Photo credit Ben Hall
There are many challenges in trying to conserve and restore peatlands, with one difficult hurdle being that many people just aren’t motivated by the idea of a ‘bog’. Decision makers are reluctant to change policy without clear evidence and land managers with state-based support question the merit of changing practices after having been previously directed to manage them in a very different way.
An early task for the Peatland Programme was to set out evidence on the benefits of peatlands and the consequences of leaving them in a degrading state. The results were startling. UK peatlands contain over three billion tonnes of carbon in the preserved remains of dead plants that makes up peat. Every year we lose 16 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from damaged peatlands, equivalent to half of all reductions made annually in our efforts to tackle climate change. Having to treat coloured ‘peaty’ water from damaged peatlands imposes cost in the order of tens of £millions to water companies and similarly our council tax has to deal with the expense of flooding problems arising where eroded peatlands cannot slow water from the hills in the way a natural bog does.
With a clear case that urgent action is needed to tackle our peatlands and avoid passing on huge costs and problems to future generations the Peatland Programme prepared the UK’s first Peatland Strategy. The strategy launch in York saw a fantastic show of support from a wide range of organisations agreeing that damaged peatlands are of no use to anyone and seeking new policies and funding to help protect, restore and maintain our peatlands is paramount. Amongst all the political upheaval and economic difficulties of our times, the role of our Peatlands Programme is to ensure this unified voice for peatlands is heard.
I have been fortunate in my RSPB career in having the opportunity of sabbatical leave where I can escape the computer desk and long meetings to focus for a few months on getting back to nature. This year I toured the peatlands of Britain and Ireland as research for my new book, taking the slow way by walking, cycling and using public transport. I cannot overemphasise the reenergising effect of being out among the open green spaces offered by the many peatlands that stretch our land from Orkney to Dartmoor. I encourage everyone to go out and visit a peatland: there are many easily accessible reserves and well-marked routes on offer. Look out for events and activities on a peatland near you on National Bog Day (22 July) and show your support for our peatlands.
Forsinard a peatland landscape in all its glory. Photo credit Eleanor Bentall
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