Volunteers ditch blocking at Black Moss. ©David Hill/Peatland ACTION Butterfly Conservation Scotland

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.

Scotland’s peatlands are host to characteristic species of plants and animals that have adapted to living in harsh conditions. Peat forms in areas of high rainfall and most often where there is low availability of nutrients. Consequently, peatland habitats are waterlogged, acidic and nutrient poor.

Sphagnum moss growing in bog pool. ©Lorne Gill/SNH. For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or www.nature.scot

A Scottish peatland landscape is a canvas of colour: springy carpets of green, yellow and red sphagnum mosses growing by a bog pool, white cotton grass gently swaying in a light breeze, and purple heathers dotted on the fringes.

©Lorne Gill/SNH. For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or www.nature.scot

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.

Oblong-leaved sundew (Drosera intermedia). ©Lorne Gill/SNH. For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or www.nature.scot

Oblong-leaved sundew (Drosera intermedia).

©Lorne Gill/SNH. For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or www.nature.scot

Bogs and mosses are also important habitats for insects such as the Large Heath butterfly, which are endemic to peatland habitats as its fussy caterpillars will only eat cottongrass.

Bog cotton. ©Lorne Gill/SNH. For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or www.nature.scot

Bog cotton blowing in a light summer breeze.

©Lorne Gill/SNH. For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or www.nature.scot

 

Large heath butterfly taking a drink. ©Alistair Graham/Butterfly Conservation Scotland. For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or www.nature.scot

Large heath butterfly taking a drink.

©Alistair Graham/Butterfly Conservation Scotland. For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or www.nature.scot

Peatlands under threat

Much of this biodiversity is under threat however, mostly due to peatland habitats drying out. This often occurs after historical attempts at drainage for forestry or agricultural purposes. Drier conditions lead to changes in vegetation structure with scrubbier species such as heather or birch dominating the habitat to the disadvantage of characteristic bog species. Taller scrub species then intercept rainfall causing more drying which can lead to further losses of bog 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’ has been working hard to improve habitats on degraded bogs and mosses across Scotland. Volunteers work to install ditch-blocking dams that slow the flow of water and help rewet the peat around the ditch. In time sphagnum mosses recolonise the ditch and peat-formation starts again helping to restore the natural hydrological balance of the bog. 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.

Group of volunteers ditch blocking at Langlands. ©Sara Green /Butterfly Conservation Scotland. For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or www.nature.scot

Group of volunteers ditch blocking at Langlands. For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or www.nature.scot

©Sara Green/Butterfly Conservation Scotland

Volunteers employ a variety of methods to clear scrub. Smaller tree seedlings are pulled by hand and larger saplings are removed by using root cutting saws. ‘Tree popping’ tools are also utilised to lever entire small trees out of the peat.

Volunteers scrub clearing on a peat bog. ©Melissa Shaw/ Butterfly Conservation Scotland volunteer. For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or www.nature.scot

Volunteers scrub clearing on a peat bog in Perthshire.

©Melissa Shaw/Butterfly Conservation Scotland volunteer. For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or www.nature.scot

The results

Ditch-blocking and scrub clearance helps to ensure that conditions remain suitable for peatland specialist species. Rewetting the moss is also beneficial in terms of building resilience for future climate changes.

Benefits of the work undertaken by volunteers can often be quickly seen with shallow pools of water forming behind dams. These pools are quickly colonised by sphagnum mosses and insects such as dragonflies. 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.

Azure Hawker Dragonfly (Aeshna caerulea) - male, resting on a bed of mosses. ©Laurie Campbell/SNH. For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or www.nature.scot

Azure Hawker Dragonfly (Aeshna caerulea) - male, resting on a bed of mosses.

©Laurie Campbell/SNH. For information on reproduction rights contact the Scottish Natural Heritage Image Library on Tel. 01738 444177 or www.nature.scot

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 carbon storage and resilience to climate change, a key aim of Peatland ACTION – great work everyone thank you’.

Find out more:

The Bog Squad undertake practical conservation work on peat bogs, to volunteer visit the Butterfly Conservation Scotland Facebook page for regular updates on events or read about the work they do on the Bog Squad blog

Peatlands are for everyone. Take a look at our collection of FREE to download peatland related images selected for you!

For further information, or to get involved with Peatland ACTION

Peatland ACTION case studies: We demonstrate links between peat condition and: fisheries; grouse; carbon storage; wildlife; landscapes; human history; and so much more. 

If you would like to contribute to the on-going work of Peatland ACTION please contact [email protected]

Project information: www.nature.scot/peatlandaction