This is the first in a series of four blogs by Nic Wilson exploring the critical importance of peatland as a nature-based solution to climate change. This blog sets out the benefits of healthy peatland and highlights a case study from Forsinard Flows Nature Reserve demonstrating how valuable peatland restoration can be.
Peatland has a critical role to play in addressing the twin biodiversity and climate crises. In the UK, it covers around 10% of our land area from the remote Scottish highlands to areas around major centres of human habitation. The raised bogs, blanket bogs and fens that make up peatland habitat should be some of the most dramatic and biodiverse landscapes in the country, but after decades of mismanagement, overgrazing, burning, drainage and peat extraction, a disturbing 80% of peatland is currently in a damaged and deteriorating state. The UK and Scottish Government’s commitments to net zero emissions (by 2050 and 2045) respectively gives added impetus for conserving peatlands. These are our biggest carbon store which needs to be kept safely in the ground, protected by healthy wetland bog and fen habitat. Earlier this week, it was encouraging to see the Committee on Climate Change highlight the need for an accelerated programme of peat restoration and Lord Deben call for Government to introduce an immediate ban on using peat in gardening at the CCC’s progress report launch.
Peatland in the UK has been subject to unsuitable land management for many decades. This has degraded the habitat, causing the oxidisation of carbon which is then released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. As a result, much of the UK’s peatland is no longer sequestering and storing carbon. Instead, it is emitting 16 million tonnes of CO2 each year: a figure equivalent to around half of all the combined annual reduction efforts in the UK.
Alongside natural peatland emissions of methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N20) emissions from drained and fertilized agricultural peatland, this means that peatland emits 23.3 million tonnes of greenhouse gases every year, despite the fact that peatland in a near-natural state should be approximately ‘climate neutral’. Due to the carbon content and carbon-storing potential of our large peatland areas (Scottish and English peatlands contain around 1.6 billion tonnes and 584 million tonnes of carbon, respectively), avoiding, halting and reversing the degradation of peatland is an effective nature-based solutions to climate change.
UK peatland supports many important species and increasingly endangered ecosystems. Some of the key species that rely on peat bogs are rare and/or declining, such as the golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria), the carnivorous round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) and the swallowtail butterfly (Papilio machaon). For these, and many other species, the conservation and restoration of peatland vegetation is an essential factor in supporting healthy populations, re-establishing functioning ecosystems and creating vital habitat networks.
In addition to the importance of peatland in mitigating climate change, up to 70% of the UK’s drinking water comes from predominantly peatland areas. Healthy peatland produces naturally high quality drinking water with low pollutant and nutrient levels, significantly reducing the amount of purification needed once it reaches the water treatment plant. In degraded habitats, peat erodes and dissolves in the water, causing brown coloration and necessitating costly water treatment and more use of chemicals before high quality drinking water can be produced.
Flood Defence and Water Storage
Healthy peatland plays a vital role in adapting to the effects of climate change by slowing, absorbing and storing large amounts of water as it filters down from the hills. Unlike vegetated peatland areas, bare peat does little to slow water flow across the land and artificial drainage channels accelerate the rate at which water flows through peatland, creating faster runoff and increasing the potential for flooding. Once these channels are blocked and the land re-wetted as part of restoration work, water flow is reduced and the flood risk lowered.
Case Study – Peatland Restoration at Forsinard Flows
The RSPB reserve at Forsinard Flows is part of a vast expanse of blanket bog, sheltered valleys and mountains known as the Flow Country. Blanket bogs in this area have been growing for more than 10,000 years and in places the peat is up to 10 metres deep. An important carbon store, the Flow Country’s peat bogs hold more than three times the amount of carbon found in all the UK’s woodlands.
Areas of the Flow Country have been damaged by drainage for agriculture and in the 1970s and 80s, the government’s incentives to produce more timber led to huge sections of the deep peat bogs being planted with non-native forestry plantations. As a result, the peat dried out and released the carbon that had previously been stored in the ground. Over the past 20 years, the RSPB has been restoring the Forsinard Flows bogs, removing forestry plantations, blocking the drainage channels and allowing the original water levels to become re-established. Once the hydrology is working, the land can be re-vegetated with sphagnum moss which will ultimately create new peat. This in turn leads to an improvement in biodiversity at the restored sites and has seen the return of the golden plover (Pluvialis apricaria), which is only able to breed on healthy peatland.
The work at Forsinard Flows has also enabled pioneering restoration techniques to be developed and scientific research which is now being applied in other restoration projects. The RSPB have established a peatland science centre of excellence at Forsinard to facilitate new research into the role of peatlands as a carbon store and on peatland restoration and biodiversity.
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