The promise and danger of the Scottish bog

The UK is exceptionally rich in blanket bogs – large continuous areas of rainfall-fed upland peat. About 13% of the world’s peatland is in the UK, with most of that in Scotland. Overall, peatlands cover 20% of Scotland’s landscape and are thought to hold more than half of the country’s carbon in soils. After almost 10 years of concerted action to protect its peatlands, Scotland is recognized as a leader in peat restoration.

One of the Flow Country’s pioneering restoration projects is at Forsinard Flows, where the nature conservation charity, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), has removed non-native conifer plantations. Ben Oliver Jones, site manager at RSBP Forsinard Flows, shows me what the organization has been doing since they bought the land for restoration in 1995. We drive along a dirt road to a stand banal-looking conifers.

Inside one of the remaining old plantations, it is easy to see that they have become a biodiversity wasteland. As I enter the forest, twigs snap loudly. The trees are planted so close that the sunlight is a faint grayish hue, and the plantation ground is knee-deep in brittle, dry debris. It’s eerily quiet and stuffy – I hear no animals and see few other trees, shrubs or mushrooms anywhere on the forest floor. “It’s a monoculture,” says Jones. “It’s rare to see many birds here.”

These plantations, although dense, are not productive. Nutrient-poor boggy soil is not conducive to healthy tree growth, and the trees that do grow are of too poor a quality for building or furniture.

Emerging from the dark interior of the plantation back into the sun, I cross to the other side of the dirt road. Running through the rugged terrain are the remains of furrows where rows of trees were felled and removed. Their quality is so poor that they can often only be used for cheap pulp or biomass, Jones says. In some places, the remaining stumps were mulched and the chips scattered over the bog to rot.

The ground already looks a little wetter – removing the top layer of debris, there is dark, damp ground about an inch below the surface. The removal of trees and the blocking of drains have raised the water table, but there is still a long way to go before the bog reaches its pre-forest state of carbon sequestration. That said, on the way back to the trail, my rubber boot gets stuck in thick, slimy black mud for an alarming moment – a good sign for the water table perhaps, but less so for my socks.

Managing to keep my boots on, we descend a little further down the track to see where the terrain is a few years later in its restoration. Here there are more signs of the reappearance of typical bog vegetation – including the crucial sphagnum mosses. The land here is filled with small pools and teeming with insects, and Jones points out that these also provide habitat for birds such as Dunlin and Green Redhorse. In more remote locations, species rare in the UK have been spotted, such as the common scoter.

“Some species quickly return to restoration sites,” says Jones. “Golden plover and lapwing are two bird species that have established breeding territories at sites within two years of completing restoration work.”

The end result may be worth it, but Forsinard Flows’ work shows that it takes decades to reverse the damage done in the short amount of time it takes to dig a few ditches and plant a grid of saplings.

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