Thousands of years in the making, it is the special ingredient which gives Scotch whisky its evocative, smoky flavour.

But now a major producer of peat used in the malting process – the point when barley is infused with the peat’s distinctive ‘reek’ - says Scotland’s whisky industry may be left without its most vital component because of tight restrictions aimed at preserving precious peat bogs.

Neil Godsman’s peat bog at St Fergus near Peterhead sends 3,500 tonnes of peat to maltings around Scotland every year. From there, the smoke-infused grain is distributed to distilleries across the country to begin the distillation process.

However, he has warned that his 300 acres peat bog is expected to be fully excavated in the next decade – throwing into doubt where many of Scotland’s leading brands will source Scottish peated malt in the future.

His warning came as it emerged that the Scotch Whisky Association is drawing up a ‘peat action plan’ which will highlight ways the sector can support peatland restoration and repair some of the damage done by centuries of excavation, most caused by horticulture, agriculture, construction and clearances for shooting moors.

Mr Godsman, who runs Northern Peat and Moss Company, has suggested the sector should instead focus on finding future sources of vital Scottish peat before it becomes almost impossible to acquire, placing the multi-billion pound whisky industry in jeopardy.

“Peat producers are now very hard to find, and it is impossible to get planning permission to extract peat on any new bogs,” he said.

“Peat will definitely get scarce in ten years’ time. The industry should be looking for new, accessible areas where there is suitable quality peat that can be extracted and transported easily.

“Now is the time to get started because it will take up to 10 years to prepare a bog properly. You can’t just wait until the last minute, go to a bog, dig it up and send it to a distillery.”

Mr Godsman’s peat is sent to two-thirds of Scotland’s maltings operations including Glen Ord Maltings, which supplies malted barley for brands such as Talisker, and Buckie-based Portgordon Maltings. The remaining third receives peat from Islay, where whisky giant Diageo’s Port Ellen Maltings provides peated malt to a range of island distilleries.

Despite having a 700 acre peat bog, Mr Godsman says he is restricted to harvesting peat from just 300 acres because the remaining bog is protected as a nature reserve.

Mr Godsman added: “There will be a serious issue in the future if organisations like Scottish Natural Heritage do not allow any more bogs to be developed.

“They are hell-bent on stopping peat production regardless of what it is for. Whisky is one of our most important exports but no-one else is cutting peat for malting on any scale.

“I can’t believe they’ll save the world by stopping people taking peat, but allowing us to keep taking peat will save the whisky industry."

Concern for Scotland’s damaged peatland has led to tight planning restrictions preventing new peat extraction, while their unique biodiversity has prompted many bog areas to become listed as sites of special scientific interest.

Dr Andrew Coupar, SNH’s Habitats Group Manager, said: “Although Scotland has some amazing areas of peatland and is restoring damaged peatlands on an impressive scale, we still have large areas in relatively poor condition.

“Some of this is due to peat extraction, although only a small proportion of that is attributable to the whisky industry. Most of the peat that is extracted is used in horticulture. Numerous alternatives to peat as a growing medium are available and we would encourage members of the public to use these.”

The Scotch Whisky Association will unveil its new peat action plan later this year. It is expected to highlight how the industry can become more efficient in its use of peat, and outline support for the restoration of Scotland’s precious peatland.

“Sustainability is a key part of the Scotch Whisky industry’s plans going forward, as part of our role in helping the UK and Scottish governments to meet net-zero targets,” said Director of Industry at the Scotch Whisky Association, Dagmar Droogsma.

“While not all distilleries make peated Whisky, for those that do or plan to, peat use will certainly be a consideration as they develop individual action plans around sustainability.”

Mr Godsman refuted suggests that peat taken from construction and wind farm sites could be used for maltings, arguing that the required open air drying process would make it too difficult while distillers require particular peat for the maltings process.

But while environmentalists have seized on peat extraction, Soil Association spokesman David Michie suggested focus should instead by on another whisky ingredient.

“We would like priority to be given to the way that the barley is produced, i.e. in a climate and nature-friendly way, rather than the current variety, protein content and skinning considerations.

“If whisky companies did create more demand for sustainably produced barley then it would have a big impact: barley is the most widely crop grown in Scotland, and about a third of it is used to produce whisky.”