Bog standards: Why restoring and protecting Scotland's peatlands is critical

Peat soils such as blanket bogs, raised bogs and fens cover nearly a quarter of Scotland’s entire landscape.

The habitats, formed over thousands of years, are made up of highly adapted plant species and provide homes for a wide range of rare and important wildlife.

They provide a host of environmental services, absorbing pollutants, improving water quality and reducing flooding, as well as holding important cultural and economic value for their contribution to farming, tourism, whisky production and fishing.

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When in healthy condition, peatlands also perform an important role in helping tackle climate change, capturing carbon and preventing it being released into the atmosphere.

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Estimates suggest around 1,600 million tonnes of carbon is stored in peat across Scotland – about the same amount as the country’s total greenhouse gas emissions over 140 years.

However, when dried out and damaged, peatlands can actually give off carbon dioxide, driving up emissions and speeding global temperature rise.

The bad news is around 80 per cent of our peatlands are in a degraded condition, caused mainly by human activities such as drainage, conversion for agriculture, burning and forestry planting.

Scotland's Flow Country - home to globally important peatlands stretching across a vast swath of land in Caithness and Sutherland -- contains around five per cent of the world's entire blanket bog habitat. Picture: Rebekka Artz/James Hutton Institute

This has prompted a major drive to restore and protect these internationally important ecosystems, including the Scottish Government’s Peatland Action plan.

Now Scottish scientists from the James Hutton Institute and University of the Highlands and Islands are teaming up with partners from across the UK and Europe for a £3.7 million research project that will investigate the risks climate change poses to peat bogs and come up with plans to better care for them going forward.

Meanwhile, a campaign to get Scotland’s Flow Country – a massive area of peatland in Caithness and Sutherland that is alone home to 5 per cent of all the world’s blanket bogs – recognised and protected as a Unesco World Heritage site is moving forward apace, with hopes that designation could be approved in 2024.

A scramble to buy up land with degraded peatlands has also begun in earnest, to take advantage of the emerging carbon trading market.

It’s encouraging to see the importance of these iconic landscapes getting proper recognition, but there’s no time to lose and even greater action is needed to ensure all of our peatlands are returned to good health and harmful activities ended.

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