Peatland ACTION case study: What's the connection between peat and nature?
Peatland ACTION, with the help of project partners and volunteers, are on the road to restoring Scotland’s peatlands in an effort to improve biodiversity and combat climate change.
Here David Hill, Peatland Restoration Project Officer from Butterfly Conservation Scotland’s Bog Squad tells us why peatlands are special places, and how he and his team of volunteers are working together to protect the habitat that some of Scotland’s moths and butterflies rely on for food, shelter and breeding.
Peatlands are special places, home to a range of nationally rare or very specialised plants and animals that have adapted to living in waterlogged, acidic and nutrient poor conditions. Peat forms in areas of high rainfall, in Scotland peatlands are most prevalent on our oceanic western and northern shores.
Fussy eaters or natures specialists?
To overcome the challenges of living in conditions where your roots are always wet and there isn’t much by way of nutrients in the surrounding peaty soil, many species have had to devise special strategies to survive. For instance, sundew has developed sticky pads that trap small insects like midges, which then slowly decompose providing the plant with essential nutrients. Sphagnum mosses are key species on peatlands as their unique properties actually drive the formation of peat.
Peatlands are also important habitats for insects such as the large heath butterfly, an endemic but true peatland specialist as its fussy caterpillars will only eat cottongrass.
Peatlands under threat
However, much of the biodiversity associated with these peatlands is under threat.
More than 20% of Scotland’s land area is covered in peat yet up to 80% of this globally rare habitat is considered to be in poor condition, mostly due to peatland habitats drying out. This often occurs after historical attempts at drainage for forestry or agricultural purposes. These drier conditions lead to changes in vegetation structure with scrubbier species such as heather or birch dominating the habitat to the disadvantage of characteristic peatland species. Taller scrub species then intercept rainfall causing more drying which can lead to further losses in biodiversity. Additionally it can shade out the vital sphagnum mosses that drive peat formation.
The Bog Squad are go!
With funding from Peatland ACTION, a team of volunteers from Butterfly Conservation called the ‘Bog Squad’, have been working to improve habitat conditions on degraded lowland peatlands across Scotland.
Volunteers work to install ditch-blocking dams that slow the flow of water and help raise the water table around the ditch. In time, sphagnum mosses and other peatland plants recolonise the ditch and peat-formation starts again, helping to restore the natural hydrological balance of the site. Dams are either created by installing sheets of plastic piling to form a water-tight seal or, where possible, hand-cut peat dams are formed.
The volunteers also undertake scrub clearance. A variety of methods are used; smaller tree seedlings are pulled by hand and larger saplings are removed by using root cutting saws, whilst ‘tree popping’ tools are used to lever entire small trees out of the peat.
Ditch-blocking, in combination with scrub clearance, helps to ensure that conditions remain suitable for peatland specialist species.
Benefits of the work undertaken by volunteers can often be quickly seen with small shallow pools of water forming behind dams. These pools are quickly colonised by sphagnum mosses and insects such as dragonflies, whilst the removal of invasive scrub opens up space for increasingly scarce birds such as snipe to feed and provides sunny spaces for butterflies to flourish again.
Reinstating the hydrological balance of peatlands is also beneficial in terms of building resilience for anticipated future climate changes.
Fiona Mann, Peatland ACTION Communications Officer concludes:
‘There is so much to be gained by the work the Bog Squad volunteers undertake: fresh air, exercise, camaraderie, learning and sharing knowledge about the wildlife that call peatlands their home, but most importantly helping to safeguard this unique habitat.
This work is also contributing to and maintaining Scotland’s natural peat carbon store and resilience of this habitat to climate change, a key aim of Peatland ACTION – great work everyone thank you’.
Find out more:
As well as promoting community engagement and encouraging new Bog Squad volunteers, Butterfly Conservation Scotland also help deliver a number of talks, seminars and presentations to a range of audiences about the benefits of healthy peatlands
To take part in practical conservation work on peatlands with the Bog Squad, visit the Butterfly Conservation Scotland Facebook page for regular updates on events or read about the work they do on the Bog Squad blog
For further information, or to get involved with Peatland ACTION
Peatland ACTION is helping to restore damaged peatlands across Scotland with funding provided by the Scottish Government.
Peatland ACTION case studies: We demonstrate links between peat condition and: fisheries; grouse; carbon storage; wildlife; landscapes; human history; and so much more.