Simon Thorp

Simon Thorp

Simon Thorp outlines the enormous value of Scotland’s peatlands in tackling climate change

Peat soils cover over a fifth of Scotland’s land area, but the importance of these areas as providers of natural services that offer benefits to all parts of society is only just starting to be fully appreciated. Deep peat contains some of the highest concentrations of carbon in Europe but peatlands are also important for agriculture, recreation and sporting enterprises, as well as supporting internationally important blanket and raised bog habitats.

I was delighted to be invited to provide a briefing for the 2020 Climate Change Group that highlighted the importance of peatlands to society. The ability of these areas to capture and store carbon for a long period is very relevant to the Group’s purpose of implementing measures to mitigate the effect of carbon emissions on climate change. As an example of how peatlands contribute to compensating for carbon emissions, consider the following:

Intact bog plantlife captures around 920 kg of carbon dioxide per hectare each year. Therefore, one hectare of intact bog stockpiles the CO2 output from 384 litres of petrol or 350 litres of diesel every year and Scotland has about 1.8 million hectares of peatland.

Scotland is justifiably proud of its peatland heritage but peatlands are important beyond storing carbon. For example, I do not think that many people are aware of the vital part that peatlands play in delivering clean drinking water. Over 70% of our drinking water comes from upland catchments, most of which contain peat. The ability of these areas to provide water is vital for all parts of society and industry. Where would the whisky industry be without a supply of high quality water from upland catchments?

In the past, the importance and sensitivity of peatlands was not recognised; I believe that these areas have been viewed as unproductive wilderness and taken for granted. We must ensure that peatlands are managed in ways that maintain the wide range of other valuable services provided by these areas, but in view of the interests of the 2020 Climate Change Group, this article focuses mainly on the ability of peatlands to store carbon for long periods.

The ability of woodland to store carbon is well recognised, but the storage of carbon in trees is largely limited to their lifetime, measured in decades. Carbon stored in peat can stay out of circulation for periods measured in thousands of years, if not longer. This distinction is not widely appreciated.

Although it is hard to appreciate the numbers involved, Scotland’s deepest peats store around 3 billion tonnes of carbon; this is ten times the amount stored in the whole of the UK’s trees. Or put another way, peat soils in Scotland contain almost 25 times as much carbon as all other plantlife in the UK.

The current state of our peatlands has been influenced by man’s activities and the fact that much of our peatlands are in good condition is the result of careful management. However, because our peatlands have not been valued properly, large areas have suffered from bad management and their ability to store carbon has been compromised. Instead of storing carbon, the peat in some areas has been eroding, releasing carbon to the atmosphere and exacerbating the climate change problem.  A first priority must be to stop further erosion. When this is achieved, measures should be introduced to return the peatlands to good condition so that they start to accumulate and store carbon, once again.  This requires the application of intelligent and sensitive management practices.

This then is the background to the importance of peatlands in relation to carbon. In an effort to increase awareness of the importance of these areas in the climate change debate, the 2020 Group sponsored a meeting of interested parties in April this year.  I attended this meeting and out of it came the suggestion that a specialist peatland group should be formed.  We agreed that it would be best if this group operated under the umbrella of an existing organisation and the Moorland Forum was suggested as being well-placed for this. I agreed to discuss this with members of the Forum, who supported this proposal. I think the Moorland Forum was deemed to be suitable, as it had shown itself to be capable of strong advocacy over upland issues and in Lord Lindsay, the Forum has a well-connected Chairman.

Scotland’s Moorland Forum was formed in 2002, and it has since developed into a unique partnership that engages in a robust way with matters influencing the uplands of Scotland, and promotes improvements in policy, practice and management. The Forum provides the prime opportunity for cross-cutting debate on the future of the Scottish uplands and its communities, and it seeks consensus on key issues affecting the uplands founded on a sound evidence base.

Membership of the peatland group will be open to organisations beyond the Moorland Forum. However, it is likely that numbers will need to be limited to ensure meetings do not become unwieldy, whilst making sure that wide representation is achieved. I expect that the group will want to include representatives of existing initiatives such as the IUCN UK Peatland Programme, the Carbon Landscapes & Drainage Project (CLAD) and researchers operating in the field of peatlands.

I expect that the aims for the Group will include all or some of the following:

  • Promote the awareness of the importance of peatland as a carbon store;
  • Help to develop clear concise message about why peatlands should be highly valued;
  • Develop a Peatland Carbon code, possibly following the development of the woodland code, which was led by Forestry Commission Scotland.
  • Investigate how best to integrate research so that it produces relevant output;
  • Working with the land management community, develop up to date guidance about how best to manage peatland;
  • Consider opportunities for pilot schemes, possibly adapting the ‘focus farm’ concept being used in agriculture;
  • Apply an adaptive management approach to pilot schemes that will trial different approaches and learn from the results;
  • Investigate novel approaches for funding for peatland management including:
    • the development of a more intelligent and ambitious support regime within agri-environment schemes; and / or
    • establishing a voluntary carbon scheme to satisfy the demand from Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) schemes in industry.

The work to understand the potential of peatlands to service the needs of society is in its infancy.These are magnificent areas in every sense but we need to extol their virtues and manage them in a way that will enhance the benefits they can provide. The time for taking these areas for granted as valueless wilderness is past, and the initiative started by the 2020 Group that has led to the formation of the peatland group will help to place peatlands on the pedestal that they deserve.


• Simon Thorp is the Director of The Heather Trust, and Director of Scotland’s Moorland Forum. In this latter capacity, he briefed the 2020 Group about the importance of peatlands to Scotland at a meeting in June 2011.

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