IT is an ancient landscape which began life as the ice sheets retreated at the end of the last Ice Age.

Waterlogged peatlands cover vast swathes of Scotland – more than 20% of the country by some estimates – made up of dead, compacted plantlife laid down over millennia.

Yet these marshes could hold the key to solving the very modern problem of climate change, due to their incredible carbon-storing properties which lock greenhouse gases deep within the soil.

But with peatlands drying out across Europe, the race is on to ensure those closer to home do not follow the same fate.

According to a new study, the continent’s peatlands are in such a dry and fragile state there are fears they could go into reverse, releasing rather than absorbing carbon.

The study, published in Nature Geoscience, found that most peatlands had become drier during the 200-year period between 1800 and 2000 than they had been for the last six centuries.

In Scotland, around 80% are thought to be damaged, and are losing or have lost the moisture which keeps their carbon from entering the atmosphere through grazing and erosion. Efforts are under way to stem and even reverse the damage, but environmentalists face an uphill battle to turn around the degradation of the past.


The Flow Country, Sutherland, is one of Scotland's most expansive blanket bogs. Pictures: SNH 

Peatlands have long been considered wastelands that need to be brought into more productive use, such as the vast East Anglian fens in England, which have now all but disappeared to become farmland.

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Stuart Brooks is head of conservation and policy at the National Trust for Scotland (NTS), which oversees 16,000 hectares of peat bogs, mostly on uplands. It is estimated these store 27.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide – about one-third of the annual greenhouse gas emissions from Scotland.

He said: “It’s one of the cheapest ways of fighting climate change. Scotland is quite a significant player in the peatland world, both in terms of the expertise it has managing them and the size of the resource within our borders.

“It is one of the areas where we can say we are a genuine world leader. The critical thing is that when these peatlands are wet and intact they will continue to store carbon, but when they are damaged or dry out they will leak carbon. It’s that simple.”

As well as their benefit to the environment, peatlands are also unique ecosystems. Home to flowers that grow nowhere else, such as the carnivorous sundew and bog rosemary, rare mosses, birds and insects.

Brooks added: “There are two scales to look at when you see a peat bog, the macro and the micro. You have dramatic uplands like Glen Coe and Rannoch Moor, which are stunning landscapes.

“But beneath your feet at the smallest level they are just as beautiful. They are multi-coloured with mosses of bright green and pink, and it is a very varied landscape of humps and hummocks, studded with wild plants.”

READ MORE: Prof Iain Stewart backs bid for UNESCO 'protection' of Flow Country​

Restoring the marshes is a challenge. By their very nature they are in remote and often inaccessible places, often far from roads and infrastructure.

The solution is also labour-intensive – sealing the draining ditches which leach moisture from the bogs and stop them from returning to their natural state.


Bogs change with the seasons

NTS has carried out restoration work at Ben Lomond, Goatfell on Arran and Ben Lawers above Loch Tay, while plans are in place for further programmes at Mar Lodge Estate National Nature Reserve in Aberdeenshire and Grey Mare’s Tail, near Loch Skeen in the Highlands.

The restoration method of blocking drainage ditches on Ben Lomond was shown to be highly cost-effective, at around £3,000 per hectare. Other methods include reprofiling “haggs” of exposed peat to stop it drying out, and covering sites in protective sheets of compostable material.

In 2018, the UK Peatland Strategy was published, and England, Wales and Scotland are at various stages of implementing national plans.

READ MORE: Funding secured for first peatland project on Scotland’s islands​

Since 2012, the Scottish Government has funded its own peatland action plan, administered by Scottish Natural Heritage.

More than 19,000 hectares have been now put on the road to recovery, and the aim is to increase this to around a quarter-of-a-million during the next decade.

It is hoped that this will help secure the future of one of Scotland’s most important weapons in the fight against global warming for many centuries to come.

A spokeswoman for SNH said: “With more than 80% of peatland habitats estimated to be damaged in Scotland, the focus of Peatland Action is to restore damaged peatlands throughout Scotland, helping create important habitat for plants and wildlife, and helping to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

“For the financial year 2019, the Scottish Government announced £14 million in peatland restoration funding, as part of its continued commitment to tackling the global climate emergency.

“Enhancing our nature is an important part of the solution to the climate emergency, and Peatland Action’s long-term ambition is to restore 250,000 hectares of peatland by 2030.”


Bog cotton is one of the plants found only on peatlands

A Scottish Government spokesman said: “Restoring peatland has an important part to play in delivering on our climate-change ambitions. The impact of peatland degradation on climate change cannot be overstated – particularly in Scotland, where around 25% of the country is covered in peat soil.

“If all of the C02 from that peatland were released then it would be the equivalent of more than 120 years of our emissions being released at once.

“Restoration work includes improving areas of wetlands by reducing drainage and slowing water flow on peatland, as well as covering areas of peat exposed to the elements, helping to lock in carbon and reduce potentially harmful C02 emissions.

“By doing this we are also providing an important habitat for plants and wildlife, improving water quality, and mitigating flood risk.

“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.”