THEY cover more than one fifth of the country and are vital in protecting communities from flooding as well as providing a home for many native species.

Now Scotland's peatlands are returning to health after years of decline after an £8million investment saw many ailing sites restored.

The money is part Scotland’s National Peatland Plan and has already helped put more than 10,000 hectares of Scotland’s degraded peatlands on the road to recovery.

Scotland is home to around 60 per cent of all the UK's peatlands and they are globally recognised for their biodiversity, supporting rare moorland breeding birds and unusual plants, such as the Insectivorous sundew and butterworth.

Formed over thousands of years, they are also one of the nation's most important natural assets in terms of the ecosystem services they provide. As well as offering a home for nature, bogs play a key role in water quality and flow and in a healthy state, peat is an essential weapon in the fight against climate change, acting as a massive sink for greenhouse gases.

But when damaged they can release huge quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Now a further 8,000 hectares of damaged peatlands are starting on the road to recovery after the £8 million in extra funding from the Scottish Government for the national Peatland Action scheme.

It will be spent on conservation measures including landscaping to reduce exposed peat and the installation of peat dams to restore water levels in blanket bogs, which are vital to carbon capture and provide habitats for many important Scottish species.

Work will involve blocking gullies to prevent the earth from drying out and releasing carbon into the atmosphere.

Eroded areas of bare peat will also be re-planted to stabilise the surface.

These measures will improve mountain vegetation, which will in turn benefit native wildlife and birds such as the snipe, skylark and greenshank.

Andrew McBride, Project Manager of the Peatland ACTION project said: “Peat covers over 20% of Scotland’s land area and it is estimated that over 70% of this is in a degraded condition.

"The SNH Peatland ACTION team works with land managers across Scotland and in partnership with other organisations to restore degraded peatlands – to date we have started the process of restoration on nearly 15,000ha of peatlands.

"Most of our work involves advising on ditch blocking, stabilising eroded areas, and re-establishing vegetation – most notably by the bog building plant sphagnum moss.

“Not only are peatlands part of our landscape and cultural heritage, providing a unique habitat for species such as large heath butterflies and sundew plants, they are important for our environment. Peat stores carbon, reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.

"Peatbogs retain and filter water, reducing the impact of drought or flooding and keeping our burns clean for fishing and drinking.”

Across the world, large-scale degradation is causing serious environmental and social impact, with annual emissions estimated at around two gigatonnes of carbon dioxide - 10 per cent of all global emissions.

Rewetting damaged peatlands can bring them back to good condition.

Scots are being urged to avoid using peat-based compost in their gardens to help preserve resources.

Conservationists say the current reliance on the ancient material for growing certain plants is "totally unacceptable and unsustainable", and people should turn to alternatives that are just as effective and readily available.

Nearly a quarter of Scotland's entire land area - around two million hectares - is made up of peat bogs, which are estimated to contain around 1,620 million tonnes of carbon.

The habitat also plays a crucial role in helping guard against flooding, purifying water and supporting rare native wildlife such as adders, golden plovers, dragonflies and carnivorous sundew plants.

Extraction of peat destroys peatlands, which take thousands of years to form - laying down just 1mm per year. Some of Scotland's mires began forming in the Bronze age.

The UK government has committed to abolishing the use of peat in amateur gardening by 2020 and ending extraction of peat for the horticulture industry by 2030.

However, despite a significant rise in uptake of alternative composts, peat use by gardeners has also been increasing.

Industry figures show more than half of material used in bagged composts is peat, amounting to two million cubic metres every year.

Around a third of all peat used for gardening in the UK comes from bogs in this country, while the remainder comes from Ireland and elsewhere in Europe.

Conservation charity Plantlife, which owns Munsary nature reserve in the internationally recognised Flow Country in Caithness - one of Europe's most extensive areas of peatland - is working with organisations such as the Royal Horticultural Society, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the National Trust for Scotland to end use of peat in gardening and revitalise peatlands.

Plantlife's Dr Trevor Dines said: "For the love of peat, the time to wean ourselves off this precious, threatened natural resource is now.

"Our use of peat is simply unsustainable, hugely damaging to our peatlands - some of our best natural treasures - and simply not relevant in today's climate.

"We all have the opportunity to do the right thing by our gardens and countryside and demand a peat-free future."