On World Peatland Day 2021, Julia Westbury tells us about two important areas of peatland restoration work on RSPB Scotland reserves.

 

Scotland’s peatland landscapes are vast carbon stores and have enormous potential as a natural solution to combatting climate change. Peatland habitats are also well known for their unique and special wildlife - home to birds such as dunlin and golden plover, and diverse insect and plant communities. However, peatlands can only play this vital dual role if they are healthy. Currently, around two-thirds of Scotland’s peatlands are degraded, meaning they are releasing carbon into the atmosphere and are contributing to climate change rather than helping to fight it.

Peatland restoration is playing a crucial part in the fight to reduce CO2 emissions and is integral to tackling the climate crisis. At RSPB Scotland’s spectacular Abernethy and Forsinard Flows Nature Reserves, work is ongoing to make this a reality. Thanks to Scottish Government funding through the Peatland ACTION – distributed by NatureScot – and other funders, we are working hard to make sure our peatlands work for the climate and for nature.

Forsinard Flows Nature Reserve with a pool in the foreground, peat bog and mountain in the background

RSPB Scotland Forsinard Flows nature reserve

RSPB Scotland Forsinard Flows nature reserve lies at the heart of the Flow Country, a vast, rolling expanse of peatland and wetland within Caithness and Sutherland in the far north of mainland Scotland. The area is well suited to the formation of blanket bog, a rare type of peatland which only forms in acidic, waterlogged conditions typical of cool, wet climates.  The plants that grow here don’t fully rot away when they die due to the acidic conditions, but instead build up into layers of peat under the living top layer of vegetation.  The peatlands of the Flow Country have been growing for more than 10,000 years, are up to 10m deep in places, and make up almost 5% of the world's blanket bog.

This unique landscape not only supports a vast array of plants, insects, birds and mammals, but also acts as a huge carbon store, making it an important defence against climate change. The Flow Country’s blanket bogs alone store more than three times the amount of carbon found in all of Britain’s woodlands.

After having remained largely untouched for millennia however, a government drive to produce more timber in the mid to late 20th century led to large areas of deep peat being planted with non-native forestry plantations. This has proved particularly damaging as the trees have a dehydrating effect on the underlying peat that causes a release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.  They have also divided the natural peatland landscape, reduced the number of species the bog can support, and caused a reduction in ground nesting birds around the edges of forestry due to the threat of predators in the trees.

Restoring blanket bog from tree plantations is a core focus of the work programme at RSPB Scotland’s Forsinard Flows Nature Reserve. Since the late 1990’s, thanks to funding from European LIFE, Peatland ACTION, and other funders, work has been ongoing to remove the damaging trees, and help restore the drained and damaged blanket bog.

Our long-term goal is to restore previously felled areas of non-native forestry back to healthy blanket bog using various techniques, depending on the conditions of different areas of the reserve. Experience and shared knowledge has meant that reserve staff have been able make informed decisions about the management techniques used across the different areas of the reserve. This 'forest-to-bog' restoration will benefit all life within the restored areas, and reduce forestry impacts on adjacent bogs. It will also help mitigate climate change by improving the protection of the huge peatland stores of soil carbon.

 Helicopter bringing in rocks to An Lurg

RSPB Scotland Abernethy Forest nature reserve

Peatlands are found across the Cairngorms National Park, particularly on the higher ground where blanket bogs form. Sadly, much of it is in a heavily degraded condition, causing the loss of carbon and threatening the species that rely on them.

Thanks to the support of Peatland ACTION, work is being undertaken to repair historic damage on a degraded and actively eroding area of blanket bog on some of the remotest areas of RSPB Scotland’s spectacular Abernethy Forest nature reserve, 800 metres above sea level.  

An Lurg lies within the Cairngorms Connect partnership area – a partnership of neighbouring land managers who are committed to an ambitious 200-year vision to enhance habitats, species and ecological processes across a vast area within the Cairngorms National Park. As part of this work programme, we are restoring approximately 1,500 hectares of degraded peatland on this high plateau. The damage on this remote hill has been linked to historic high grazing pressure from deer and sheep. The degraded condition of the peat bog means it is particularly susceptible to erosion from rainfall, which results in the release of carbon into the atmosphere. It is vital that restoration work continues at pace across this vulnerable habitat. 

Most recently, work has focused on an 88-hectare area of An Lurg, where large areas of bare peat, severe gullying and exposed peat hags are extensive. Special machinery has been used to reprofile the peat hags and gullies (some of which are 2 metres in height) and create bunds to contain water run-off and help re-wet the peat. This work increases the ability of the bog to retain water, by slowing its flow, which reduces erosion and helps to keep this important resource on site. Due to the isolated location, helicopters have been used to transfer materials to the site. As well as being a quick method of transportation, it limits any potential damage to the surrounding sensitive areas and the wildlife inhabiting it. These restoration works will not only help to reduce carbon emissions, but will also result in improved water quality, and the preservation of important habitats for a variety of endangered and rare species of both plants and animals

These are just two examples of how RSPB Scotland is working to restore these important wildlife sites. Peatland restoration work is currently being planned to take place across thousands of hectares. RSPB Scotland is involved in a wide range of projects working with a diverse group of partners, to conserve and restore peatland habitats across the country, preserving these precious habitats for future generations of both people and wildlife.

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