Don’t get bogged down in the notion that this natural resource needs our help – it’s doing fine.
When in the 1970s investors planted peat bogs with pine and spruce, they picked cheap land considered lacking in proper use.
Peat was that gloopy stuff perhaps best used as idiomatic fuel in the Highlands, breathing out a sweet reek in the fireplace. Or it corrected over-alkaline soils in the garden. Red deer, miraculously able to survive on it, were dubbed, ‘the dun tenants of waste’.
Times have changed and peat bogs are in fashion. Today, landholders are being invited to protect peat and create more by lowering water-flows and encouraging the formation of mossy bogs.
Drains hand-dug long ago for shooting lairds to dry out moors for grouse can be blocked, stopping water-flow and promoting mosses. And public money is there to help.
There is £13 for each drain-blocking dam (essentially a sheet hammered into a narrow trench); money for adjusting grazing levels to protect peat; money for peat-friendly management; money for removing trees which seed outside plantation fences and invade peat territory; and more for making bigger water-slowing dams. Peat protection has become a crusade.
But is it all necessary? In the current Scottish climate, peat will ‘grow’, or thicken, at about an inch every hundred years. That may not be a lot compared to vertically-ascendant plants, but for soil it is impressively rapid. Spread over millions of acres, it constitutes a fast-accumulating resource. Depletion is tiny; peat-bog is unobtrusively increasing, not shrinking.
Crusades, however, require urgency. The story being promoted is of peat damaged by too many animals, of carefree heather burning by grouse-moor lairds, of too much human impact. Peat, we’re told, urgently needs ‘restoration’.
In fact, peat is one of the most natural largescale landscape types in Europe. Government policy recognises this in the prohibition of new forest planting on peat over half a metre deep. Peat protection on the big scale is already there.Eco-campaigns suffer from two weaknesses.
They appeal to the restoration of a past, which is often notional, or they extol a vaguely understood ideal land-type somewhere far off. The peat-bogs have a partly fictional folk history.
The idea that most of Scotland was once a forest is fanciful. Distinguished historian Professor Christopher Smout, amongst others, called the ‘Great Wood of Caledon’ a myth.
In any case, although peat’s acidity preserves tree-roots intact, peat-lands are not formed from trees but from sphagnum mosses and cotton grasses, the white floss-flowered grasses which nod in the breeze on summertime moors.
The country Scotland should resemble, according to peat-bog lobbyists, is Norway, although this has more to do with Norway’s state ownership of land model than ecology.
The scrubby tundra look of northern Norway has developed from deep snow cover over long winters, which protects trees from browsing.
Animals cannot browse through the frozen crust. But those who would have Scotland scrub covered and are prepared to clear the deer to do so, may not know Norwegian scrub in summer; it is sweaty stuff to bushwhack through and fizzing with mosquitoes.
We should rejoice in our wonderful springy turf-lands where you can go anywhere and view clear landscape. There is no more invigorating walking terrain than young heather moorland. The aroma is of bog myrtle, heather and hill plants, the hum of buzzing bees.
There is a colour procession through bell heather’s mauve in July to ling’s deeper purple in August, then the russet of fading deer-grass in October.
Under it all lies a mantle of rich black peat. Animals are not damaging it, as claimed.
Sheep numbers are dwindling and red deer herds have been dramatically reduced since public concern about out-of-control deer populations in the 1990s, and by consecutive hard winters causing widespread deaths.
It is often claimed that peat erosion and deep peat gullies are caused by human mismanagement. And sometimes they are, as when heavy-duty roads to service wind farms have resulted in ‘peat-slide’, where entire hill-sides slither down the slope.
Ecologist Dr James Fenton, who has published a paper explaining the natural evolution of peat, cut his research teeth in Antarctica. There he saw peat-banks as starkly eroded as any in Scotland. Water and time were the cause.
His paper describes a Damascene conversion in a working life spent in the peat-lands. He has moved away from simplistic hypotheses to a new understanding of how peat-land has come about. The movement of water through peat ‘pipes’, or natural slits, makes for constant evolution. Peat constantly re-shapes itself.
He concludes that forest never covered most of the Highlands, but colonised suitable gullies and pockets, expanding and contracting according to alterations in the climate, which pre-dated any human effects by centuries.
Woods thinned out naturally, long before large-scale sheep farming arrived. Dr Fenton notes that old pine roots in the peat were all the same species and all the same age. The tree-cover era was short.
These days, those who cut peat to burn are dwindling. Making and turning a peat-stack involves back-bending labour. Constructing wind tunnels which dry out peat for the hearth takes time. Peat-smoked salmon and cheeses, and peat-flavoured whisky distillation use miniscule amounts.
The days when it was scraped from the open plains of Caithness and exported to Sweden as power station fuel are long gone. Peat is outgrowing its use hugely.
Peat is now seen as a sequester of carbon, a topsoil blanket which works tirelessly at mopping up carbon belching from cars, factories and power stations. Those who argue that trees should be planted to do this job have to wrestle with the fact that peat does it better.
When trees are cut or fall, the stored carbon is instantly released. For peat-lands to erode naturally is on a different, more glacial time-scale. Peat’s carbon-absorbing virtues have been ignored in wind-farm planning.
Why bulldoze away the soil that best counters atmospheric carbon, to instead attack climate change with high-tech towers tipped with rare metals requiring disruption of the clean peat-lands for installation, and which sit in a concrete mix which uses thousands of tons of mined lime?
Amazonian rainforest ecologists consider that punching tracks and roads into virgin landscapes is the first phase in fragmentation and loss. Because peat-land’s value is subtler, the same logic is never applied to the energy balance of wind-farm construction in Scotland.
Misdirected public money makes trouble. The £9.6m of Lottery and government money being spent by the RSPB at its peatlands visitor centre in Sutherland financed, among other things, walkways of Caithness flagstone laid on the peat. Covering the breathing mantle of peat to aid visitor movement mars the target point – Flow Country has intrinsic natural value. The point of peat-land is that it is soft and springy; leaden flags are for pavements.
Our peat-lands are fine as they are. The incentives to block drains which are mossing up anyway are a distraction and a waste of green cash. Nature is doing the work on its own.
(This feature was originally published in 2016)