Extreme Weather Requires a Restoration Period

Cast your mind back to the summer full of alerts for extreme heat, water scarcity and wildfire risk we all experienced this year. As the climate warms, we are seeing an increase in wildfires not just in Scotland but across Europe. Recent research from NatureScot has shown that Scotland is expected to face an increase in the risk of extreme, longer-lasting droughts over the next two decades because of climate change.

Two dead pearl mussel shells exposed following the drop in water levels during a drought in the River Kerry, Wester Ross.
© Iain Sime

The research shows that the number of extreme drought events across the country could increase from an average of one every 20 years to one every three years. As well as becoming more common, droughts could potentially last two-to-three months longer than in the past.

Our Geographic Systems and Data Coordination Officer, Fairlie Kirkpatrick Baird, recently gave an online talk, hosted by the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s North of Scotland Local Group, about how an increase in drought is impacting our habitats, and what we can do about it.

The good news is that healthy peatlands can help us cope with these effects.

A healthy peatland is wet with lots of soft and squishy sphagnum mosses that swell and hold onto water, such as this peatland lochan at The Flows NNR, Forsinard, in Caithness. ©Lorne Gill/SNH/2020VISION

However, Scotland’s peatlands are in such poor condition that they have lost their natural capacity to adapt to reduced rainfall[1] and resulting drought. Also, in their degraded state, they are emitting carbon rather than holding on to it: in good condition, peat is the largest and most efficient land-based store of carbon, storing on average 10 times more carbon per hectare than any other terrestrial ecosystem.

Degraded peatlands can be restored to near-natural conditions. The main objective of peatland restoration is to create conditions that reduce the loss of organic and atmospheric carbon, and to encourage the growth of active, peat-forming, water-absorbing plant species. Sphagnum moss, the main peat-building plant, can hold up to 30 times its own weight in water[2].

A healthy peatland is wet with lots of soft and squishy sphagnum mosses that swell and hold onto water. Its water table is near ground level, keeping the surface vegetation wet. This helps to reduce the impact of drought and reduces the risk of wildfires. If a wildfire does occur, a wet and healthy peatland will act as a firebreak and slow its spread. A good example of this was a wildfire event at Golticlay Forest in Caithness in 2019 where peatland restoration helped prevent the fire spreading. The fire spread quickly across the unrestored site, but it had little impact on the neighbouring restored peatland.

Restoration will ensure that Scotland’s peatland landscape is more climate-ready – better able to cope with the anticipated effects of climate change – and to continue to provide essential ecosystem services. This includes alleviating the challenges associated with drought and wildfires.

Peatland ACTION, with funding from Scottish Government, are actively seeking to support landowners to get involved in peatland restoration and its sustainable management.We offer funding for suitable projects across Scotland; there are no geographical restrictions or target areas. If you are interested in developing a peatland restoration project, contact us today at peatlandaction@nature.scot.

[1] https://www.sepa.org.uk/media/219302/scotlands-national-water-scarcity-plan.pdf

[2] Yoshikawa, K., Overduin, P.P. and Harden, J.W. 2004. Moisture content measurements of moss (Sphagnum spp.) using commercial sensors. Permafrost and Periglacial Processes.15. 309-318.

By Sarah Eaton and Jeanette Holl. Research by Fairlie Kirkpatrick Baird.

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