Scotland’s crucial peatland restoration strategy is flagging behind as an SNP minister admitted a lack of skilled workers and non-existent funding deal has “undermined contractor confidence to invest”.

Peatland restoration is important to make habitats resilient to climate risks as well as to sequester carbon s part of legal targets to meet net zero.

Further degradation of peatlands under a warmer climate could lead to Scotland experiencing higher carbon emissions and losing more vital ecosystems, with damaging impacts for biodiversity and the capacity to adapt to climate change further.

More than three quarters of Scotland’s peatlands are degraded, significantly contributing to land use emissions.

The Scottish Government has set a target to restore 250,000 hectares of degraded peatland by 2030, but is failing to meet these aims.

Data from NatureScot shows that only 43,000 hectares of peatland have been restored so far, with the Scottish Government way off track in hitting its 2030 target.

Around 20,000 hectares of peatland needs to be restored every year for the target to remain on track.

But in 2022-23, only 7,502 hectares were restored, 5,637 hectares were restored in 2021-22 and 5,658 hectares in 2020-21.

In its latest assessment of the Scottish Government’s strategy for cutting emissions, the independent statutory adviser, the Climate Change Committee (CCC) issued a stark warning that ambition to restore peatlands is “low” and progress is “significantly off track”.

The CCC said that “Scotland’s targets for peatland restoration are not ambitious enough and are not being met .

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“Scotland has consistently missed its peatland restoration targets, and while 2021 saw a significant increase to 8,000 hectares restored, this was still far from the 20,000-hectare target, which is in turn significantly less ambitious than our recommendation of 45,000 hectares annually by 2022.”

Now, SNP Environment Minister Gillian Martin has admitted that barriers such as a lack of skilled workers and a £250 million funding package taking until 2020 to be rolled out.

The minister has stressed that “significant efforts are underway to address these issues”.

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She said: “The Scottish Government has identified, working with our Peatland Action delivery partners, multiple barriers that are preventing it from achieving its peatland restoration targets.

“These include a lack of skilled project designers, technical advisers and agents to support landowners and managers through restoration projects, operating restrictions during bird breeding seasons and inclement weather, the absence until 2020 of a multi-year funding package which undermined contractor confidence to invest and a lack of private sector investment at sufficient scale in peatland restoration projects.”

Ms Martin added: “Significant efforts are underway to address these issues, including substantial work to develop and expand the number of skilled and experienced contractors, developing provisions whereby operations can be carried out safely during bird breeding seasons etc.

“Furthermore, the continued growth of Peatland Action since 2020 has increased confidence in multi-year funding. This has allowed the wider industry to focus on developing the supporting infrastructure for peatland restoration, particularly with regards to training and developing applicable skills.”

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Public-sector funding has scaled up since 2020 after nothing was invested in 2019-20 for peatland restoration. Figures show that £238,000 was invested in 2020-21, £268,000 in 2021-22 and £1.7 million in 2022-23.

Scottish Conservative MSP Maurice Golden said: “The restoration of peatland across Scotland is a vital environmental objective.

“But like so many green targets set by the Scottish Government, it appears to be in real difficulty and seems likely to be missed.”

The Herald: Conservative MSP Maurice GoldenConservative MSP Maurice Golden (Image: PA)

He added: “That said, ministers have acknowledged the problem and have at least been transparent in identifying what the main challenges are.

“I hope that bodes well for this particular project, and that all relevant agencies can work together in turning this performance around and getting things back on track.”

As of November, the total number of full time equivalent staff employed in the public sector within the Peatland Action programme to undertake restoration work was 99 – with 56 from NatureScot, 23 from Forestry and Land Scotland, eight from the Cairngorms National Park Authority, five from the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority, four from the Scottish Government and three from Scottish Water.

Ms Martin said: “We are maintaining our record world-leading investment for peatland restoration - with £26.9 million in 2024-25 to help achieve our restoration targets.

“However we know that rising costs are a challenge. That’s why we will be working to find further efficiencies in peatland restoration, and encourage more responsible private investment to keep up the momentum created by our ambitious policy commitment.”