Peatlands – the jewels in Scotland’s crown

In today’s blog, Sue Walker, Peatland ACTION Communications Officer, explains the vital role of Scotland’s peatlands and how the Peatland ACTION partnership, led by Nature Scot, is working with landowners and communities to help deliver peatland restoration projects.

Photo of sphagnum mosses
Sphagnum mosses, the beautiful building blocks for bogs. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Over a fifth of Scotland is covered with the soft brown hues of our peatlands, streaked with the yellows, greens and pinks of the mosses that make this landscape so distinctive. Since the last Ice Age nearly 10,000 years ago they have grown and spread, soaking up our frequent Northern rainfall to create this multi-coloured blanket.

Those same peatlands have shaped the lives of the people who lived in many parts of Scotland too. They fuelled their fires, gave grazing for their beasts, and the plants and animals for their food and medicine.

Yet over time, the pressures on those peatlands have increased – large-scale forestry was planted, land was drained for farming, and hills overgrazed by sheep. Peatlands are still being stripped for horticulture, and pressure from the large deer population is leading to significant damage from trampling in some areas. Now over 75% of our precious peatlands are degraded, losing water – their lifeblood, drying out and eroding.

Peatlands play a vital role in locking up carbon to help tackle climate change; they are home to many plants and animals that can live nowhere else; they help alleviate flooding; they help make our source water cleaner and clearer.

Photo of Cul Mor from Loch Veyatie
Cul Mor from Loch Veyatie ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot/2020VISION

Thankfully, there are ways we can reverse the damage. There is a commitment from the Scottish Government to restore 250,000 hectares of the country’s peatlands by 2030, investing £250 million to make it happen. Peatland ACTION, a partnership of organisations led by NatureScot, is leading the work to achieve this target. They are working with landowners and communities across Scotland to block those ditches, remove that forestry, re-cover the eroded peat and help the sphagnum mosses to regenerate and spread again.

The Assynt Foundation is working with Peatland ACTION to restore almost 150ha of degraded peatland on Cul Mor, one of the iconic mountains in Inverpolly, loved by hillwalkers, photographers and wildlife watchers. The mountain sits on the Drumrunie Estate, now in community ownership thanks to the Assynt Foundation.

Photo of a excavator working to reprofile peat hags
Reprofiling peat hags to stop them eroding – a highly skilled job. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

The project will involve blocking over 2000 gullies to stop water pouring out of the bogs, helping to keep it wet and give mosses the right conditions to grow again. There are huge areas of bare peat, often surrounded by mini-cliffs of peat called ‘hags’ that quickly erode and make things worse. By ‘reprofiling’ these hags so that they are less steep, and re-covering the bare peat with sphagnum mosses, they can effectively stitch the blanket together again.

It’s challenging work, often in extreme weather conditions, that needs highly trained operators to get right. But the effects are dramatic, and over just a few years will make a big difference not only to the look of the land but to the plants and animals that can live there. Ensuring that deer numbers are kept low enough after the work is done will also be an important part of the healing process. The Assynt Foundation are hoping that more birds such as curlew, dunlin and golden plover will come to breed here, encouraged by the increase in insects and other invertebrates wetter conditions bring.

Photo of a dunlin
The Assynt Foundation is hoping more birds like this stunning dunlin will return to breed. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot

Explaining why they want to take on the project Lewis MacAskill, chair of the Assynt Foundation said: “One of the founding cornerstone objectives of the Assynt Foundation is to manage community land and associated assets for the benefit of the community as an important part of the protection and sustainable development of Scotland’s natural environment. The Cul Mor restoration project will therefore provide a significant contribution towards the Foundation’s work in a sustainable way.

“This is one of the largest peatland restoration projects in north west Scotland to date. NatureScot have been very helpful and supportive throughout the whole Peatland ACTION application process. This is the first of what we hope will be many.”

Photo of cotton grass and blanket bog by Loch Cansip
Cottongrass in flower, a sign of a peatland on the road to recovery. ©Lorne Gill/NatureScot/2020VISION

This is just one of hundreds of projects that have been delivered through Peatland ACTION funding, so far setting over 35,000 ha of degraded peatland in Scotland on the road to recovery. Landowners have got on board from small community groups to some of the largest estates in the country. What they have in common is the understanding that peatland restoration benefits everyone.

Peatland ACTION is keen to hear from landowners who would like to get involved. Email us at

A version of this piece originally appeared in the Spirit of the Highlands blog.

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