Scott Davidson Earth Smart campaign
Peatlands are among the most critical ecosystems on earth. It is surprising then that despite public support, many environmental protections for peatland have failed to materialise. From peat cutting and burning to the continuing sale of peat-based compost, these habitats are under threat. Has their public image led to them being misunderstood and underappreciated?
In popular culture, peatlands have historically been depicted as forbidding landscapes. However, a closer examination reveals their indispensable role in combating climate change and maintaining biodiversity. During my PhD looking at Arctic wetlands, I had the opportunity to do fieldwork in the Arctic tundra in Alaska, where I investigated methane emissions from the permafrost. This sparked and cemented my fascination with wetlands.

The bog of eternal stench and other stories 

We’ve not been kind to peatlands. From the haunted “dead marshes” in The Lord of the Rings to the eerie “bog of eternal stench” in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, these environments are often portrayed as wastelands – places to be avoided. This negative imagery is even pervasive in our speech. You might be “bogged down with work”, or maybe you’re “swamped” with upcoming tasks or “mired”. This kind of language all feeds in to how we think about peatlands. Have these depictions influenced our opinion of their environmental value? 
Contrary to their unfair grim reputation, peatlands are ecological powerhouses. They cover around 3 per cent of the world’s land surface but are responsible for storing between 25 and 30 per cent of the Earth’s soil organic carbon stock. This is more than the world’s tropical and temperate rainforests combined. Their secret lies in their retention of water; what is unique about peatlands and wetlands is that they are constantly flooded. The presence of water, and lack of oxygen, slows down the decomposition of organic material in the soil by microbes. Over thousands of years, that plant material builds up, allowing carbon to accumulate, creating peat. 
But this skewed perception can have real-world consequences. Historically many landowners, seeing peatlands as unproductive, have drained these areas for agriculture, significantly reducing their extent and abilities. This not only destroys these unique ecosystems, setting back the prospects for expanding biodiversity, but also releases the vast amounts of carbon that are stored in our peatlands and wetlands.

An ecological powerhouse 

Beyond carbon storage, peatlands are rich in biodiversity. They support a range of unique flora and fauna which have adapted to their permanently wet conditions. From rare bog orchids to birds such as golden plovers or hen harriers, the ecosystems surrounding and within peatlands are teeming with life. They are also crucial for the regulation of water quality and quantity, reducing the ever-growing risk of flooding and the maintenance of water supplies during particularly dry periods. 
Under the threat of climate change, peatlands can be an exciting and essential tool for tackling rising temperatures. Often, the direction of climate solutions can be to look for sophisticated, technical answers. But with peatland, the best thing you can do is to leave it be. By allowing these habitats to do their own thing, they will store carbon and restore naturally. 
Scott Davidson surrounded by trees in peatland

Providing nature-based solutions 

Research carried out by the University of Plymouth is developing climate resilience approaches across a wide range of landscapes, including wet woodlands, which are one of the least-understood types of woodland and wetland in the world. We use field-based sensors, such as gas analysers, to monitor the carbon dynamics of these habitats, representing a crucial first step towards addressing this data gap. 
Managing peatlands effectively requires a holistic approach. Success should not be measured solely by carbon storage, but also by the health of the entire ecosystem. This includes biodiversity, water quality and providing ecosystem services. For example, intact peatlands can be used for social prescribing and to enhance local mental health by providing green spaces for public use. To ensure we are able to harness the full potential of peatlands for climate action, we must also shift our perception of these landscapes and our techniques for their management. Conservation efforts should avoid converting peatlands into other landscapes, such as for agriculture or mining. Restoring peatlands and wetlands to their full glory can be a highly effective way of enhancing their ability to both sequester carbon and to support biodiversity.
Scott Davidson Earth Smart

Conservation must be holistic 

The push towards monetising the benefits we can reap from healthy ecosystems – such as carbon credits, or credits to be used for biodiversity net-gain regulations – should not overshadow the broader benefits of healthy peatlands. 
Financial incentives must be balanced with a recognition of the intrinsic value of strong, thriving ecosystems. Future government policies around the restoration and maintenance of peatlands should reflect the symbiosis of carbon capture and storage, biodiversity restoration, and the benefits that healthy ecosystems can afford to human wellbeing. 
At Plymouth our research in sustainable food, healthy soils and climate resilience promotes an “Earth Smart” way of thinking. 
We don’t think of peatlands as dark and desolate places, but as vital allies in the battle against climate change and against nature degradation. Wider public and policy perceptions must also embrace peatlands’ importance so that we can unlock their full potential. 
The conservation of the world’s peatlands is not simply about preserving a fundamental carbon stock, but about fostering resilient, lush ecosystems which support a myriad of life forms. It’s time that this humble yet mighty bog is given the recognition it deserves.
This article is adapted from a piece published in the New Statesman dated 6 June 2024. Read the story in full

Earth Smart

By bringing research directly into the field, working with farmers, landowners and communities, we are co-creating sustainable land management strategies. We are developing practical approaches to using advanced agri-tech and sensor technology to provide rapid, real-world data that can be applied at the right time and in the right place for productive, sustainable, healthy landscapes.
At Plymouth, we are bridging the gap between research and action – we are Earth Smart. 
Earth Smart logo

School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

Our courses in this area are consistently ranked among the best in the world and we have researchers considered leaders in their field in chemistry, geography, geology and environmental science.