Scott Davidson in peatland
A couple of years ago, Scott Davidson put together a lecture for his environmental science students. In it, he highlighted how the entertainment industry hasn’t been kind to our wetland landscapes. Where woodland glades are bathed in ethereal light to conjure visions of blissful tranquillity, or moorlands are portrayed as having a remote but striking beauty, wetlands are positioned somewhere between menacing and downright soul-destroying.
Think of The Swamp of Sadness. The Dead Marshes. The Fire Swamp. The Bog of Eternal Stench. In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, corpses shift beneath the waters and hypnotise a helpless Frodo Baggins. In the Neverending Story, the death of the heroic horse Artax became the stuff of many a childhood nightmare. And those sentiments are not confined to the small and silver screens.
Peatland wetland

There is so much negativity around wetlands that people are scared of them. Even the language we use in other contexts – being bogged down or swamped with work – continues that. Society might slowly be realising that these landscapes are among our best solutions to climate change. But there still needs to be a tidal shift in public opinion.

Scott DavidsonScott Davidson
Lecturer in Ecosystem Resilience

It doesn’t take much talking to Scott to realise that he is obsessed with wetlands, and in particular peatlands. And he has no qualms admitting as such. 
He has spent the past decade or so examining sites in Canada, the UK, Sweden and elsewhere all over the world. And he is now doing everything he can to share his passion with others. This includes bringing samples from his research sites into his lectures – which he catchily calls his “bog in a bucket” – where they can be examined and enjoyed by his students. He also runs an international citizen science project where he encourages people to get out into peatlands around the world and track the changes happening in them for themselves.
But his journey to becoming one of the foremost figures in this emerging and critically important field is one Scott himself couldn’t have foreseen. As an 18-year-old, he enrolled for an English and Politics degree with the ultimate ambition of becoming a journalist. He soon realised he hadn’t made the best of choices, but – because of the way the Scottish education system works – he had chosen to take a module in geography alongside his core studies. In that module, something had been awoken in him that matched his long-held passion for the natural world.

I began to excel in a way I never had. I had never been the best at anything, but suddenly it seemed I had a knack for this. When I was younger and watching David Attenborough documentaries, I always had questions. Now it felt like I had the tools to answer some of them. It was a complete transformation.

Scott Davidson carrying equipment in peatland
After completing those studies in 2018, he moved to Canada and got his first chance to work on peatlands. Up to that point, he had nothing more than a passing interest in them, but that interest quickly escalated. Initially, he focused on the disturbances to boreal peatlands caused by the oil and gas industry and wildfires. That then morphed into a love of forested peatlands and swamps. Out of that came a research paper which Scott describes as “the most fun I’d ever had”, a synthesis of all the swamp carbon data in existence to that point.

The peatland research community in Canada was so inspiring. In the space of three years, I got to speak to a wide variety of peatland researchers, organisations and stakeholders, got to do really incredible science and had the chance to work with really amazing people. It finally felt like being in the cool gang at school.

Scott Davidson surrounded by peatland
Trees in peatland and wetland
Scott Davidson surrounded by trees in peatland
In 2021, Scott made the move to Plymouth, soon establishing the Plymouth Peatlands Research Group. It created a means of continuing his own research, but also drawing together expertise from across the University. Since then, he has developed his research to look at the resilience of global wetlands and peatlands to both climate and land-use change. This includes looking at the impact of the ever-increasing threat of wildfires on these important carbon stores, alongside trying to place underappreciated global forested wetlands on the map. Overall, his research goals are to continue to understand and celebrate the role that wetlands can play as a nature-based solution to climate change.
Critically, he is also working to increase the public appreciation of peatlands through a citizen science project called Tracking the Colour of Peatlands. Encouraging people to take photographs on a smartphone, the initiative enables people to help assess how the areas change colour over the course of the year. Over its first three years, the project has focused on three sites – RSPB Forsinard Flows in Scotland, the Eden Project in Cornwall, and the Boreal Wetland Centre in Alberta, Canada. It is now in the process of being expanded to include additional sites across the UK and Canada as well as others in Australia, Finland, Ireland, Germany, France and Sweden.

Any time I have taken someone to a peatland they always leave saying how unexpectedly cool it is. But this project has actually done much more than that. People email me a photo with details of what they’ve done that day, or simply to say how happy they are to have contributed to science. I hope that by changing people’s opinion on peatlands, we can get them to appreciate these sites – and what they can offer our planet – just as much as I do.

Scott Davidson holding some plants in peatland
Despite this progress, Scott is acutely aware that the journey to better appreciation of peatlands and wetlands is only just beginning. And for it to gather pace, he is incredibly passionate about inspiring future generations of peatland scientists. During his own studies, he has received considerable encouragement and support from both lecturers and colleagues and is fully committed to doing the same for his own students.
It is why his “bog in a bucket” came to life, containing material Scott himself collected locally on Dartmoor, as a means of demonstrating the importance of these ecosystems to those who might not get the chance to ever visit one. He is also part of a team that runs a field trip to Sweden where Environmental Sciences students get to see unspoilt peatlands for themselves. And, whenever he can, he encourages his students to pursue their own peatlands research.
At the same time as he has been broadening his academic horizons, and those of others, Scott has also been on a personal journey. A first-generation university student, he openly admits that – as a child – a lot of his confidence had been eroded by experiences at school. 
Even now, he sometimes suffers from anxiety and imposter syndrome, but his emerging body of work – and the encouragement from colleagues – is going some way to countering that.

I am really passionate about the idea of research-led teaching, but also teaching-led research. Being an inspiration to people is such an amazing driver. I love working with students on research, although I do find myself constantly telling them there is no wrong answer.

If I think back to myself as an 18-year-old, I was so nervous of ‘the world’. Now, I get invited to conferences and speak in front of hundreds of people. People often say to me ‘how can you do that, the Scott I knew would never have been able to do that’. But the fact I adore my job, and the people I get to meet and work with, is helping me redress those early setbacks. I certainly plan to continue on that path.

Plymouth Peatland Research Group

Investigating the link between historic and current land-use change, climate change and disturbance impacts on peatland functioning.
We 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.
Plymouth Peatland Research Group