For Peat's Sake!
The benefits of on-farm peatland restoration
First, we cut and burned peat for fuel. Then we drained the peatlands to grow grass and sheep. Now we are realising not only how valuable those peatlands are to the Scottish, and global, environment, but also how restoring them can benefit farm businesses.
Sixty per cent of the UK's peatlands are in Scotland. Although they only make up 20 per cent of the Scottish landscape, they store 25 times as much carbon as all the vegetation of the UK put together. “The general benefits are huge,” says Farm Conservation Advisor Richard Lockett. “Carbon storage, flood prevention and habitat restoration: that’s why the Scottish Government is putting so much money into it.”
On farm peatland restoration funding is available through Scottish Natural Heritage's Peatland ACTION scheme, which covers 100 per cent of capital costs, and through the Agri-Environment Climate Scheme, where peatland restoration means increased points weighting.
What benefits do farmers see?
Picture: Farmer Malcolm Hay of Edinglassie
“Where they drained the peatlands - during the First World War - we had three miles of 18-inch trenches, eight feet deep in some places," says Malcolm Hay, of upland sheep and livestock farm Edinglassie, near Huntly in Aberdeenshire. "They were death traps for animals which would fall in and we’d never know what happened to them. On top of the hill there was an area where peat had been cut out for fuel – 100 acres where it had been cut down to the bedrock, with nothing on it.”
Hay had applied for a peatland restoration grant and in 2015 Scottish Natural Heritage came in and “did all the work”, he explains. “They went in with diggers, blocked up the gullies, got the vegetation back into the bare ground – they spread brash to reseed with sphagnum moss and heather so the soil wouldn’t blow away. They installed fencing to prevent snowdrifts and stabilise windswept areas. You can’t even see now where the trenches were. We can put the sheep out now and know they won’t disappear.”
Picture: After the diggers. "You can't even see where they filled in the trenches!"
Reduced loss of livestock, often called blackloss, is one benefit to land managers, and others include improved soil health, water retention in dry periods and flooding prevention in the wet. “But there’s more to life than economic return,” says Hay. “Particles from decaying peatland get into the rivers, and water companies have to pay millions to take it out. Juvenile salmon and trout can’t see their food in the cloudy water and their gills get infected and they die. Wading birds and grouse love peatland. It’s worth doing peatland restoration on a district wide scale – to prevent flash flooding for example.”
"Adding the peat dams," says Farm and Conservation Advisor Sandra Stewart, "raises the water levels in the ditches and slows the water flow, helping to restore natural flood management. The water pools created encourage wading birds, amphibians, pollinator insects, dragonflies, which is great for the whole ecosystem."