Yet that is exactly what our peatlands are – huge stores of carbon created by layers of plants transformed over thousands of years – and we are only beginning to fully understand the role that protecting them will play in our global fight against climate change.
In the past, Scotland’s peatland stores, which exist across the whole of Scotland, were affected by a range of land use practices, and to a lesser extent used for fuel and horticulture. Peatlands are still under huge threat, but practices in Scotland have changed. We are turning the tide but there is still work to be done.
Scotland’s peat soils cover nearly a quarter of our country, around 1.7 million hectares, and store around 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon.
However, it is estimated that over 80 per cent of our peatlands are in poor condition. Instead of capturing and storing carbon, they release it into the atmosphere, which has an impact on climate change.
For example, if all of the carbon from this peatland were released, then it would be the equivalent of around 140 years of Scotland’s emissions being produced at once.
With our delivery partners – including Peatland Action, Forestry and Land Scotland, our two national parks and Scottish Water – we are working to raise water levels on degraded peatland sites, to reintroduce sphagnum mosses, and to mend erosion known as ‘peat hags’. These actions help return peatlands to a healthy condition and prevent carbon from escaping.
Restoration has been undertaken across Scotland, including a number of projects in the internationally important Flow Country, in Caithness and Sutherland, one of the largest areas of blanket bog in the world, and at Flanders Moss, a sizeable area of lowland raised bog near Stirling.
On the islands too, a project on Lewis is leading the way. A first phase of 11 hectares of damaged peatland – roughly 15 football pitches – has been restored, with a second phase planned.
The success of this project not only ensured that carbon will remain in the ground, it also reduced the amount of peat particles entering the local water supply and that helped support black-throated divers and great skuas, two protected species of birds found in the area.
For me, this project encapsulates what can be delivered by what has been described as the “game-changing” £250 million, ten-year investment in peatland restoration that the Scottish government announced last year with £22 million earmarked for 2021/22.
As well as work such as that, we will introduce a statutory ban on burning on peatland, except under licence for strictly limited purposes such as approved habitat restoration projects, and we are also working towards phasing out the use of peat in Scottish horticulture.
With each and every peatland restoration project, we are reducing our contribution to climate change, protecting wildlife and unique ecosystems, and creating skilled green jobs as we look ahead to revitalising our economy post Covid-19.
To put it simply, restoring our peatlands is a huge win for Scotland, its people, its ecosystems, climate and wildlife.
Roseanna Cunningham is Environment and Climate Change Secretary and SNP MSP for Perthshire South and Kinross-shire