THEIR deep smoky aromas have been the signature of Islay whiskies since the first stills fired up on the island hundreds of years ago.

But now the tradition of using peat to flavour some of the world's most famous malts has come under attack by a number of powerful environmental groups, who have called for a ban on commercial extraction of peat by 2020.

The whisky industry is seeking talks with members of Scottish Environment Link – including the Scottish Wildlife Trust, RSPB and the John Muir Trust – after they claimed ending commercial peat use was essential to slow the decline in Scotland's biodiversity of plant life and animal species.

Deborah Long, convener of Scotland Environmental Link's wildlife forum, said: "What we're aiming for by 2020 is to have no commercial peat extraction. That is the best way to preserve lowland raised mires.

"The peat bog roughly grows one millimetre a year, so by taking out 10 centimetres it takes an awful long time to replace the resource."

Two peat sites on Islay – Kintour Moss and Machrie Peat Moss – are owned by drinks giant Diageo, which supplies smoked malted barley to the majority of the eight distilleries on Islay, including Laphroaig, Lagavulin and Ardbeg.

Extracting peat can only be done under strict conditions with the dead organic matter often having protected status, given its function in supporting eco-styems and storing vast amounts of potentially harmful carbon.

A further 20 or so active peat extraction sites are dotted across Scotland, mainly in the Highlands, Aberdeenshire, North Lanarkshire and Dumfries and Galloway, with the horticulture industry owning most of the extraction rights.

She said: "It is critical for our sector the Scottish valley/blanket peatlands are protected and managed sustainably."

Scottish Environmental Link has also proposed that the companies which have held extraction rights could contribute to the maintenance of peatlands post-2020.

Vast amounts of work are being done in Scotland to preserve the matter, with one £4 million project to restore around 4500 acres of peatland in the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland.

As well as playing a critical role in the fight against climate change, it is also set to dramatically improve the habitats for many rare plants and species, such as otters, hen harriers and golden plovers.

Scottish peats are estimated to hold around 1620 megatonnes of carbon with maintenance of peatlands essential to stop carbon – a key driver of climate change – seeping into the environment.

They also support many species of European importance, including golden eagles and golden plovers. The target to end commercial peat extraction in Scotland is one of 14 recently published by Scottish Environment Link. Others include the eradication of rhododendron from around 74 protected sites, increase the number of urban green spaces and restoration of machair.

The proposals come after the Scottish Government failed to meet its biodiversity targets to protect against loss of species in 2010.