2nd February is World Wetlands Day – a day dedicated to raising awareness about the vital importance of wetland habitats and their benefit to people, wildlife and our planet. It marks the anniversary of the signing of the Ramsar Convention (Wetlands of International Importance) in 1971. To celebrate, RSPB Scotland's Jen Mullen shares some interesting facts about how our wetlands can combat climate change and improve biodiversity.

Five wild facts for World Wetlands Day

Wetlands support biodiversity

Water is precious and so are our wetlands. They help maintain biodiversity and are some of the most productive life-support systems in the world. Wetlands come in all shapes and sizes and there is a great variety throughout Scotland and the UK, from bogs and rivers, lochs and ponds, to mudflats and marshes. Each support a wealth of different plants and animals which all have an important part to play in keeping our ecosystems healthy and balanced. In recent years, temperatures in our rivers and seas have been rising and if this continues, it could have a disastrous impact on our biodiversity. There is a tiny fly, Wiedemmania simplex, which resides at Loch A’an in the Cairngorms and ‘dances’ along the loch’s edge. Loch A’an is the highest waterbody of its size in Britain and if temperatures continue to rise, this fly, which has been present here since the last ice age, is at a real risk of disappearing. This is just one of many species that could be at risk and it could be a huge indicator for climate change having a direct impact on our biodiversity.


Wetlands combat climate change by storing carbon

One of Scotland’s most important national treasures is the Flow Country, which is home to RSPB Scotland’s Forsinard Flows Nature Reserve. This reserve is part of a vast expanse of blanket bog. Blanket bog is a rare type of peatland which only forms in cool, wet places. Due to the acidic and wet conditions found in the area, the plants don’t fully rot away when they die. Instead they build up deep layers of peat. The peat in the Flow Country has formed over thousands of years and it is up to ten metres deep in some areas. The dead plants that form this peat contain carbon and as long as the peat remains wet, the carbon stays locked up; preventing its release as carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and helping combat climate change. Peatlands cover only 3% of the earth’s land yet store 30% of all carbon, and the Flow Country’s blanket bog alone stores more than three times the amount of carbon found in all of Britain’s woodlands. Now that’s impressive!

Saltmarshes and coastal wetlands absorb carbon faster than rain forests

Another climate change hero of the natural world is saltmarsh - muddy, coastal wetlands with salt-tolerant grasses that are inundated periodically by the tide. These unique ecosystems keep vast amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere by breaking down and burying organic plant matter at a rate quicker than tropical rainforests. They also absorb carbon by accreting sediments from the river systems that feed them. Sediments are washed downstream, are trapped by the bays in the estuary and then the salt-tolerant plants grow on top which locks in the carbon. This building process is happening all the time, so carbon is continually being locked in. As well as storing carbon, they also support a variety of life. Just some of the many reasons why maintain and restoring coastal habitats is so important. The saltmarsh and wet grasslands at RSPB Scotland Nigg Bay Nature Reserve  support many varied plants and breeding waders including sea aster, glasswort, lapwing and redshank. The reserve also attracts thousands of wintering birds like geese, bar-tailed godwits and dunlin. You can also catch a glimpse of saltmarsh at RSPB Scotland Culbin Sands Nature Reserve, along with its sand dunes, mudflats and shingle. Shaped by the tide and wind, Culbin Sands is a complex and ever-changing dynamic system.

Insh Marshes
Insh Marshes. Photo: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

Wetlands protect our landscapes from floods

During heavy rainfall and snowmelt, wetlands, like RSPB Scotland Insh Marshes Nature Reserve, absorb water like sponges. This protects downstream properties and landscapes from flooding. In the past, there were some attempts to drain the valuable wetland of Insh Marshes for agricultural purposes but we are now working with locals to restore it. It is considered to be one of the most important wetlands in Europe and it supports a large variety of plants and wildlife including breeding wading birds like redshank, curlew and lapwing.  

Wetlands filter and clean water

Wetlands are natural water filters, acting like a sieve. As water flows through them, harmful toxins, sediment and organic matter are trapped and this process purifies the water before it reaches the sea. When our wetlands are drained and damaged, their vital environmental benefits are lost which can have a devastating impact.

Sea aster, Aster tripolium, flowering in the salt marsh at Nigg Bay
Sea aster, Aster tripolium, flowering in the salt marsh at Nigg Bay. Photo: Andy Hay (rspb-images.com)

RSPB Scotland is working hard to help maintain and protect our wetlands and to help the wildlife that relies on these wonderful watery habitats. You can find out more about the work being done here.