A wetland area forming peat near Hoo Field, Voe on Mainland, Shetland, UK

What are peatlands?

Peatlands are a type of wetland where waterlogged conditions prevent plant material from fully decomposing and peat soil is formed. 
Typically characterised by a deep organic layer, peatlands differ globally in their hydrology, chemistry and subsequent vegetation composition.
Peatlands occur across all climatic zones and continents and cover 4 million km2, which corresponds to 2.84% of the Earth’s terrestrial surface (Xu et al. 2018). 
These beautiful areas are a vital part of our natural world and the lives of animals, plants and people depend on peatlands to remain in a healthy condition.
Peat wetland on the south side of the hill of the Ward of Bressay on the island of Bressay, Shetland, UK – taken on a sunny day in spring.
Panorama of Peatland at Forsinard reserve, Scotland.
Historic, traditional peat digging on the island of Unst in Shetland, UK

Why are peatlands important?

Peatlands are among the most carbon-rich ecosystems on Earth, storing twice as much carbon as the world’s forests.
Healthy peatlands:
  • capture CO2 through photosynthesis and store an estimated 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon in the UK alone
  • have a net cooling effect on climate
  • slow the flow of water, cleaning it naturally and reducing flood risk
  • provide floodplain storage in the lowlands
  • support plant life, which provide habitats for wildlife
  • support biodiversity.
Peat erosion and loss from old peat diggings on coastal wetlands at Lunna Ness, Shetland, UK. Taken on a sunny day with a clear blue sky.
Peat erosion and flowing water in a wetland area on Muckle Roe, Shetland, UK.
Trenches cut into deep peat of wetland moors near Drinan on Isle of Skye Scotland with Loch Slap and Beinn Na Caillich mountain peak.

What peatlands do we have in the UK?

There are three broad types found in the UK:
  • Blanket bog – large areas of peat found mainly in uplands that ‘blanket’ the landscape
  • Raised bog – localised domes of peat in lowland areas
  • Fen – peat-accumulating wetland fed by mineral-rich ground or surface water.
Peatland habitat covers around 10% of the UK land area – nearly three million hectares.
Scotland peat mining.
Peat erosion on the Ward of Bressay, Shetland, UK – taken on a sunny day in spring.
Trench cut into deep peat of wetland moors on Isle of Skye Scotland to drain water for harvest.

Why are peatlands at risk?

Many of the food and fibre crops that support human life require dry conditions to flourish. As a result, farmers and foresters have drained large areas of upland and lowland peat.
Around 80% of UK peatland has been affected due to a range of human activities, which includes: 
  • draining peat for agriculture, leading to decomposition of plant material, peat shrinkage and release of carbon into the air as CO2.
  • the drainage of large areas of lowland peat, such as the East Anglian Fens, which are now below sea level and are flood risks
  • the creation of ditches for drainage which provides channels for the flow of water and may increase flood risk downstream
  • drying out peat soil to allow shrubby vegetation to grow, which makes the land more vulnerable to wildfires
  • fire caused by managed burning or accidental spread, which increases CO2 loss from the ecosystem.
The aftermath of a 2019 wildfire which impacted more than 6500 ha of blanket bog in the Flow
Country of Caithness and Sutherland. Credit: Jason McIlvenny

The aftermath of a 2019 wildfire which impacted more than 6500 ha of blanket bog in the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland. Credit: Jason McIlvenny


Research case study

The threat of wildfires to peatlands

Until now it has been difficult to measure the impact of wildfire on the northern peatland carbon stock or to predict its future. The University's Dr Scott Davidson, Lecturer in Ecosystem Resilience, is among the authors on research estimating how wildfires and other factors impact peatlands' carbon storage.
Research published in Nature Climate Change has estimated for the first time how degradation, wildfire combustion and post-fire dynamics influence carbon emissions from non-permafrost peatlands across vast areas of the northern hemisphere.
The study estimated that when peatlands are drained, these emissions of carbon released back to the atmosphere are enhanced by as much as 10% when taking wildfire into account. 
Using a modelling approach, the researchers found that while northern peatlands as a whole are still currently sequestering carbon, small increases to the drained area, fire severity or burn area can all switch the system to a net source of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. 
A reduction in the strength of our natural carbon sinks will make it more difficult to remain below critical global climate and emission reduction targets.

Our study adds further evidence to the need to deploy peatland restoration at pace and at scale. It is a cost-effective tool that can help minimise the wider impacts to northern peatland carbon stocks and the associated significant costs to society.

Scott DavidsonScott Davidson
Lecturer in Ecosystem Resilience


Peatland conservation in the UK

“Without further action it is likely that the current level of degradation will increase with climate change. Instead of providing vital and valued services, peatlands will increasingly cause costly problems to society.”

– UK Climate Change Committee, Adaptation Sub-Committee (2013)
The IUCN UK Peatland Programme exists to promote peatland restoration in the UK and the UK Peatland Strategy has identified a common way forward by:
  • conserving and enhancing the best and most readily recoverable peatlands 
  • restoring heavily degraded peatland to functioning, peat-forming ecosystems
  • applying land uses that are compatible with healthy peatlands
  • shifting management of drained peatlands under intensive productive use towards wetter ways of farming
  • maintaining a formal, government supported programme to stimulate funding, share experience, promote best practice and monitor progress towards strategic goals
  • communicating peatland values to a wide audience.
One of the main objectives of the strategy is to ensure 95% of UK peatlands supporting semi-natural vegetation are under sustainable management for their peatland biodiversity and ecosystem function by 2040.

Plymouth Peatland Research Group

The Plymouth Peatland Research Group are a group of scientists, based primarily in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, who are interested in the (paleo)ecology, biogeochemistry and archaeology of peatland ecosystems.
Their research falls into the thematic areas of peatland ecosystem services, restoration practice, and impacts of disturbance regimes on peatland function. Within the ecosystem services theme, projects focus on regulatory and cultural services.
Peatland Dartmoor

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