Creating Sustainably Wooded Peatland

Peatland edge woodland photo

Project Background

Project Background

Peatlands are a very important component of the Scottish Landscape, covering over 20% of its land area. Peatlands in good conditions provide a wealth of benefits such as carbon storage, drinking water provision, flood mitigation and biodiversity conservation. Despite this most peatlands in Scotland have been degraded by human activities, resulting in the loss or reduction of many of these benefits. There is presently particular concern about maintaining or restoring peatlands' capacity to take up and store carbon so as to mitigate climate change. 

Peatland and Forestry

One of the activities which has threatened peatlands is the planting of commercial forestry plantations, especially during the 70s and 80s. The establishment of these plantations results in the desiccation of the peat surface and the destruction of its original ground flora. This has a range of negative effects including facilitating the oxidative decay of upper layers of peat which can release substantial quantities of carbon dioxide.

Although it is now widely accepted practice not to plant on deep peat (>50cm) the question remains what to do with those areas already planted - with many plantations now reaching maturity. Large areas of afforested peatland are in the process of being restored and some argue this should be the fate for all plantations. However given the expense associated with peatland restoration and the ambitious government targets to increase forest cover in Scotland this may be unrealistic - instead it is likely that some plantations will be conventionally restocked with more trees after the original timber crop is harvested. 

Peatland Edge Woodland

In 2014 Forestry Commission Scotland proposed a new management option for plantations on deep peat which was termed 'Peatland Edge Woodland'. They argued that in some cases it may be suitable to clear a plantation and then establish a low density woodland, with at least 20% woodland cover being maintained. They theorised that in some situations the creation of such a habitat might allow sufficient recovery to peatland that the area would be restored to a net carbon sink while simultaneously providing a habitat with some of the biodiversity benefits of both peatland and woodland.

The concept of Peatland Edge Woodland is a controversial idea. After several year of it the concept being introduced it remains poorly defined with regard to how it should be created and maintained, what its composition and structure should be, and what benefits it should provide.

Scope of the Project

Scope of the Project

This project has two main components to it. The first is to produce a policy review on Peatland Edge Woodland. This involves critical review of policy documents and scientific literature combined with a series of interviews with key stakeholders in peatland and forestry management (see 'Policy Analysis' tab). The second and larger component of this project is ecological study on the impacts that Peatland Edge Woodland has on peatlands (see 'Field Campaigns' tab).


Policy Analysis

Policy Analysis

14 interviews have been carried with a range of stakeholders and a critical review of available literature has been carried out. The data from this work is currently been analysed and synthesised into a publication. This publication will focus on 7 main areas:

  1. Knowledge level of Peatland Edge Woodland
  2. When it is thought appropriate to establish Peatland Edge Woodland
  3. Why it would be established
  4. How it should be established
  5. What specification it should have
  6. What benefits it might have
  7. What risks or difficulties might be associated with it establishment

Field Campaigns

Field Campaigns

There are many studies on the effect of conventional forestry plantations on peatlands, but relatively little work on the effects of lower density woodland on peatland and no specific research on Peatland Edge Woodland. The project consists of 2.5 years of field work starting in summer 2018 and finishing summer 2019. The results from the policy analysis have helped to identify representative field sites and identify relevant research questions. The aims of the field work are to:

  1. Investigate the impact of Peatland Edge Woodland habitats on greenhouse gas flux
  2. Investigate the biodiversity associated with Peatland Edge Woodland
  3. Investigate how stable canopy cover is in Peatland Edge Woodland
  4. Investigate the effect of Peatland Edge Woodland on water table depth

Field work carried out in 2018 has all been based at Rumster Forest in Caithness. Specifically this was carried out on the long term experiments set up by the Forestry Commission at Rumster where areas have been planted with Peatland Edge Woodland adjacent to areas which have been conventionally restocked and left open allowing a comparison between Peatland Edge Woodland common alternative options. A range of variables have been measured including water table depth, peat depth, rate of litter decay, soil surface moisture, Dissolved Organic Carbon (DOC), water nutrient content, pH, vegetation composition, tree biomass and rate of regeneration.

Field work in 2019 will focus on two sites, Flanders Moss and Raphloch Moss, similar variables will be measured as at Rumster but carbon dioxide and methane flux measurements will be taken for the peat surface and trees. Tree ring analysis and faunal diversity will also be assessed if possible. At a later stage in 2019 or even in 2020 Skyline 2D will be used to take flux measurements along a transect of different tree densities.

The Team and Project Funding

Project Funding

The Project is led by a NERC CASE-funded PhD student at the University of York. The project's CASE partner is Forest Research. 

The Team 

Will Jessop

Will is the project's PhD student. They completed an undergraduate degree in Biological Science from the University of Oxford and an MSc in Plant Biodiversity and Taxonomy from the University of Edinburgh. Will's MSc project looked at the extent of hybridisation of Malus sylvestris (the crab apple) with Malus domestica (the domesticated apple) in Scotland and northern England. 

Dr Richard Payne (University of York)

Richard is the lead supervisor of the project's PhD student and a lecturer in Environmental Geography at the University of York. Richard has diverse research interests within environmental change and management and is currently on part-time secondment to the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA). 

Dr Sylvia Toet (University of York)

Sylvia is a secondary supervisor to the project and a lecturer at the University of York. Sylvia is a systems ecologist with research interests that include fluxes in ecosystems. 

Russell Anderson (Forest Research)

Russell is the CASE supervisor to the project and has been a researcher for Forest Research (the research division of the Forestry Commission) since 1978. Russell is currently the project leader for 'Afforested Peatland Restoration and Ecosystem Services'. 

Dr Roxane Andersen (University of the Highlands and Islands)

Roxane is a secondary supervisor to the project and a Senior Research Fellow for the University of the Highlands and Islands's Environment Research Institute. Roxane's research interests are focused on the ecology of peatlands and their restoration.