Guidance on how to restore Peatland once commercial peat extraction has ceased
This guidance sets out practical advice on the restoration of peatlands subject to historic commercial peat extraction. The advice is expected to be relevant to planning authorities, landowners and site operators who are involved in the extraction of peat for commercial purposes and supports the restoration of peatlands for nature conservation and Carbon sequestration. To ensure restoration success, consider restoration options before extraction comes to an end.
In Scotland, there are 3 main types of peatland: blanket bog, raised bog and fen. These are formed from partially decayed vegetation or organic matter. The opportunities for restoration of peatlands may be included as part of a Review of Old Mineral Permissions (ROMP) or when seeking changes to planning permission for restoration purposes, once the extraction has ceased.
Scotland has set an ambitious target to be net-zero by 2045. Peatland in good condition plays an important role in carbon sequestration, and successful restoration will play an important part in achieving this target. Peatlands in poor condition emit harmful greenhouse gases. Restoration of peatland can also deliver other, wider, benefits to society including providing important habitats, improving the quality of the water in our rivers, lochs and reservoirs and reducing flood risk.
In Scotland, planning permission for commercial peat extraction is managed by the relevant planning authority. Planning authorities are also involved in the Review of Old Mineral Permissions (ROMP) which is an opportunity every 15 years to consider whether the operating conditions for older mineral extraction sites are fit for purpose. The purpose of this guidance is with this review process in mind. We encourage landowners and/or operators, once peat extraction ceases, to restore a site for nature conservation. This is because if left unrestored, a damaged peatland can take more than a century if at all, to regain any nature conservation value.
Where planning permission already includes restoration requirements to restore the site to another future land use, we would encourage operators and landowners to use the ROMP procedures to ensure restoration requirements were for nature conservation.
Based on aerial surveys of Scotland, in excess of 2500ha of previously extracted peatland at 70 sites are in very poor condition and require restoration. It is further understood that of these sites, less than 10 have formal restoration plans of varying detail.
It is understood that commercial peat extraction is actively occurring at around 20 sites in Scotland. The majority of extracted peat is used for horticulture, with smaller volumes being extracted for whisky production, animal bedding, mushroom growing and local domestic heating.
Why restore commercial peat extraction sites?
It is often a misconception that abandoned peat extraction sites can, over time, naturally restore. However, this is not the case and abandoned sites, even after 25 years remain largely bare, with solid peat eroding into water courses. Ensuring land is successfully restored, fit for a new after use, is an important role of planning authorities when considering planning applications. Bare peat exposed to wind, rain and frost has the highest Greenhouse Gas emissions of any peatland. By considering restoration at an early stage in the planning process carbon emissions can be substantially reduced and important wildlife habitats created. If considered early it is also possible to reduce the costs associated with successful restoration.
Restoration conditions attached to planning consents can help ensure that responsibility for the cost of restoring a peatland site lies with those who benefitted financially from the extraction. There are however wider environmental benefits of peatland restoration. Some of those relevant to planning authorities are listed below:
Local Authorities' powers under Part 4 of the Flood Risk Management (Scotland) Act 2009 provides the local authority with general powers to manage flood risk in its area and to carry out flood protection work within or out of its area. Peatland restoration activities can assist in the retention of peak flows to assist in this duty. This is because water runoff from heavy rainfall on drained bare peat surfaces like those that can be found on former extraction sites, is fast and immediate, with consequences for flooding downstream. A restored site, by contrast, supports conditions that can slow the flow of water and when bog vegetation has been established it too can retain and hold back some of the flow.
Poor water quality due to suspended peat particles and colour, not only incurs costs to providing a clean water supply but also has a detrimental effect on fish spawning grounds.
As bare peat extraction sites can be totally inhospitable for all wildlife their restoration can aid with obligations under the Nature Conservation (Scotland) Act 2004. This legislation requires that all public bodies in Scotland are required to further the conservation of biodiversity when carrying out their functions. The Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011 further requires all public bodies to report every three years on how they comply with this Duty.
Section 44 of the Climate Change Act (2009) places duties on public bodies relating to climate change which requires them to contribute to carbon emissions reduction targets; contribute to climate change adaptation, and act sustainably. Restored peatlands in good condition can help store and absorb Carbon thus helping to reduce climate change impacts.
Wildfires do not spread as easily across wet peatlands, so can act as a natural barrier.
What does restoration of peatland involve?
Peatland restoration can if managed well, be a straightforward process. The objective of peatland restoration is to provide a consistently high water table and establish a protective layer of vegetation. This is simply done by restricting the flow of water from a site by a series of peat bunds and dams. In cases where no natural vegetation remains and to assist rapid colonisation, turves from adjacent bog are translocated, seeds of bog species sown and clumps of Sphagnum moss are scattered across the surface.
All former extraction sites can be restored to provide some benefit to biodiversity, including those where all the peat has been removed. These sites can be restored as wetland habitats with, for example, fen and reedbed options.
Paludiculture is another opportunity, where the growing of biomass (reeds and rushes) on wetlands can be used for biofuel or in the case of Sphagnum culture used as a supplement to horticultural growing media.
Please read: Paludiculture UK Conference 2017: Working with our wetlands
Important points to consider:
- Plan restoration as early as possible and at least 10 years before the site is due to close. In most cases, restoration can commence on parts of the site whilst extraction continues elsewhere. It is not beneficial to leave all the restoration to the end of extraction, as exposed areas of peat will continue to degrade and making it potentially more challenging and costly to restore. Delay also increases the risk that no restoration will be done, once extraction is completed. Starting the restoration process early also means any long term management issues can be tackled while the appropriate machinery and experienced operators are still working on site.
- Aim to leave sufficient undisturbed peat on the site to ensure successful restoration. Restoration plans for peat extraction sites tend to outline leaving an average of 0.5 m of peat across the site. This inevitably means that some areas will have no remaining peat, which makes restoration to bog more difficult and a significantly longer term process. In addition, drainage ditches are often cut into the remaining 0.5m, create a link with the mineral substrate and affecting bog restoration. It is recommended that at least 1 m of peat is left across the entire site to overcome this issue.
- Utilising the peat extractor’s machinery that is already on site and any down time, can help reduce costs.
- Further advice on peatland restoration is available on our Peatland Action pages