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Peatland restoration work is highlighted on World Wetlands Day

By Alan Hendry

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Peatland restoration projects in the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland as well as other locations around Scotland are being celebrated as part of World Wetlands Day.

The ongoing work on what is seen as a globally important habitat is led by Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS), the Scottish Government agency responsible for managing national forests and land.

World Wetlands Day is held annually on February 2 to raise international awareness about the importance of wetlands for people and the planet.

Blanket bog is a type of habitat found on peatland soils in cool, wet upland areas in maritime climates. It covers some 23 per cent of Scotland’s land area and is rarely found elsewhere in the world.

In the past, FLS points out, its importance as a carbon sink and as unique habitat was less well understood and large areas were often drained and ploughed for tree planting. This would dry out the peat and harm the habitat formerly used by birds such as golden plover, greenshank, hen harrier and black grouse, as well as animals and plants.

Braehour in Caithness, two years into a restoration programme by Forestry and Land Scotland.
Braehour in Caithness, two years into a restoration programme by Forestry and Land Scotland.

The changes also affected water quality and flood management and resulted in peatlands acting as a carbon source, contributing to climate change.

As knowledge and understanding of peatland habitats evolved, work got under way to reverse this.

FLS chief executive Simon Hodgson said: “World Wetlands Day is a great way to help maintain everyone’s focus on the importance of restoring these habitats.

“This hugely important work is helping secure our carbon stores – changing peatlands from sources of carbon to carbon sinks – and is an integral part of Scotland’s contribution to tackling the global climate emergency and furthering the Scottish Government pledge to make Scotland a net-zero-emissions country by 2045.

“It is also adding substantial value to the scale of the contribution we make to our environment, to biodiversity, to water quality and to the people of Scotland.

“We started peatland restoration work over 20 years ago at Longbridgemuir near Dumfries and since 2014 have ramped up our restoration work across Scotland, removing trees, blocking drainage ditches and restoring the naturally high water table.

“Perhaps the best-known place that we are working on, or have worked on, is the Flow Country in Caithness and Sutherland, an unparalleled blanket bog habitat that is currently being considered as a potential World Heritage Site."

Over the past six years FLS has been restoring more than 3000 hectares of afforested land and 3000 hectares of threatened open peatland at sites all over Scotland.

In the past year alone it has worked to restore over 1000 hectares of open and tree-covered peatland. This began just after the end of the first Covid-19 lockdown, with six sites already completed and a further nine sites to follow.

These are mainly in the Highlands, with another on the Isle of Skye and one in Moray.

Work has been carried out at Braehour Forest in Caithness, while water quality has been improved in the River Oykel in Sutherland – a Special Area of Conservation that is internationally important for salmon and other aquatic life.

The restoration work has been funded by Scottish Government and the NatureScot Peatland Action Fund as part of the Scottish Government’s £250 million commitment to peatland restoration projects over the next 10 years.

Workers use a range of techniques – developed initially by FLS, ScottishPower Renewables and Forest Research – to remove trees, recover more timber and smooth out and "re-wet" sites.

The aim is to restore the water table to its optimal high level. This will allow the plants and mosses that are only found on healthy peatlands to recover. It should ensure that the peatlands stop acting as emitters of greenhouse gases and become a reliable store of carbon, helping to reduce the amount of change to the climate.

The Scottish Government climate change programme recognises the role that both woodland and peatlands can play in absorbing carbon dioxide and minimising greenhouse gas emissions.

February 2 marks the date of the adoption of the Convention on Wetlands in 1971, in the Iranian city of Ramsar.

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