Climate Change Showcase: Restoring peat bogs in the Cairngorms

Posted: 1st November 2021

In the first of our landscape restoration and climate change mini-series, Matt Burnett, the Communications Coordinator for the Endangered Landscape Programme, spoke to Jeremy Roberts – the Programme Manager, and Sydney Henderson – the Communications and Involvement Manager, of the Cairngorms Connect project. 

MB: Tell me about the Cairngorms Connect Programme, and what you do there. 

SH: Cairngorms Connect is a partnership of neighbouring landowners committed to a bold and ambitious 200-year vision for restored habitats and ecological processes at a landscape scale, within the Cairngorms National Park in Scotland. I’m based in the Cairngorms Connect Office in Aviemore, although have mainly been working from home in Inverness due to COVID-19. My role involves the “people” side of Cairngorms Connect – creating opportunities for people to get involved with the partnership. Before this role, I worked for Flows to the Future, a peatland restoration and public engagement project up in the vast Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland which was where I really fell in love with peatlands. I’ve slowly seen peatlands getting more of the attention they deserve, and I think the narrative is changing as more people understand the beauty of bogs, and their value – for people, nature and the climate. 

JR: I’m the Programme Manager for Cairngorms Connect, which covers 60,000 ha – it’s the UK’s biggest habitat restoration project. I started the role in February 2019 following a 14-year role managing the RSPB’s Abernethy reserve: 13,400 ha of forest, moorland and mountains within the Cairngorms Connect area.  I was one of the four founding partners of Cairngorms Connect, back in 2014, so it’s great to now have a role to deliver our 200-year vision. Across the whole project area, the partners employ 55 Full Time Equivalents (as of 2020) who are involved in everything from restoration delivery, communications, planning, monitoring and procurement/admin. It’s an amazing team of skilled and driven folk who, together, are delivering some great achievements for the partnership.

Jeremy Roberts, Programme Manager for Cairngorms Connect.

MB: How does your work tie in with COP26?
SH: The 4th goal of COP26 is to “Work together to deliver. We can only rise to the challenges of the climate crisis by working together.” With regards to COP26, I see the role of Cairngorms Connect as a demonstration of this goal in practice – to show a possible solution for how we can work together. Cairngorms Connect is a partnership between a private landowner, conservation charity and two government bodies, illustrating how these different types of landowners have championed collaboration to fight the climate and biodiversity crises.  

Cairngorms Connect will also be hosting an event at COP26 on ‘Peatlands, people and partnerships’ where we’ll be further discussing our peatland restoration work – and what people and partnerships help us achieve.

Sydney Henderson, Communications and Involvement Manager at Cairngorms Connect.

MB: What have you been doing in the peatland restoration project?
SH: One of the three main focuses of the Cairngorms Connect partnership’s practical restoration work is peatland restoration. There’s around 10,000 acres of peatland within the partnership area. Most of this is high altitude blanket bog – at 700m above sea level. At lower altitudes (250m above sea level), we have a scattering of amazing forest bog habitats, as well as riparian fen. Much of this has been damaged by a combination of overgrazing, drainage and planting with non-native conifers – impacts we are now reversing, through peatland restoration across the Cairngorms Connect area. 

Damaged peatlands aren’t great at storing water – when gaps appear in the protective layer of surface vegetation, the bare peat degrades and erodes, creating drainage channels which further speed up the loss of water from the site. This has negative consequences, from increased flood risk downstream, to peat erosion. Because peat is a great store of carbon, any degradation or erosion generates carbon emissions. 

With funding from the Endangered Landscape Programme and Peatland Action, via the Cairngorms National Park Authority, Cairngorms Connect is creating dams in damaged peatlands to retain water within the bog, which helps the vegetation to regrow, and prevents water rushing straight off the hill in fast gullies. We’re also working to restore 800 ha of bog woodland – a rare habitat here in Scotland, and not widely understood. The trees that grow in bog woodland are scattered, small and stunted due to the harsh conditions, and may only grow for a short period of summer when the upper surface of the bog slightly dries out. In the Cairngorms Connect area, bog woodland is mostly found in small wet areas of deeper peat within established woodland. Cairngorms Connect partners have been working to restore areas of bog woodland, by blocking old drains to rewet boggy areas and removing plantations for restoration to bog woodland.

High altitude blanket bog on An Lurg being restored by Cairngorms Connect.

MB: What were some of the challenges faced by the project? 

SH: For me, one of the challenges has probably been the inaccessibility of the peatland restoration sites – they’re all quite high altitude and not easily accessible by road. Whereas the forest restoration work is quite easy to show folks, it’s not exactly straightforward to take people out to see the peatland sites in person, so we’ve had to be creative in how we communicate and engage people with the peatland restoration work – for example through time-lapse videos. 

JR: We have faced a couple of challenges with restoration delivery. The great news is that Scottish Government is providing substantial funding for peatland restoration, pledging £250 million for a ten-year funding package to support peatland restoration, with a target of restoring 250,000 hectares of degraded peatland by 2030.  In 2021, £22m has been made available for restoration.  However, we have faced some challenges to find sufficient, experienced contractors to do the peatland restoration work – but that is getting easier.  Some of the contractors really have developed extraordinary restoration skills and capability in a short time!  Another issue has been partners’ capacity to set up the contracts and supervise them – it’s an element that is often overlooked, that is crucial to achieving good restoration, and an area to which we would like to devote more resource.  ELP funding has enabled us to support CC partners with this management process. 

MB: What are the outcomes of the work so far?
SH: So far we’ve completed 526 ha of blanket bog restoration, and our bog woodland restoration work will commence in 2022.

Bog woodland at Uath Lochans in the Cairngorms National Park, Scotland.

MB: Why did you choose to do this work?
SH: On a personal level, I want more people to be involved in fighting the climate crisis, and to feel like it’s a space for them, whatever their background. It’s a privilege to be able to work for Cairngorms Connect, and to be actively involved in a partnership delivering climate change mitigation and solutions. It’s important that I use that privilege to make this work, and these solutions, more accessible and inclusive – to bring more people in. When people feel included and empowered to act, we are much more powerful. 

MB: Are you hopeful about our ability to combat climate change?
SH: I think you’ve got to be hopeful. If I didn’t have hope for a better future for younger generations, and un-born generations beyond them, I wouldn’t be able to do this work. People give me hope – yes, the climate and biodiversity crises are huge and terrifying, but there are brilliant people carrying out acts of hope for a better future every single day. It’s cheesy, but I really believe people do have the power to combat climate change and change the world. Crucially we need to empower people to act on their hope, and show that a better world is possible – and that the solutions are within our reach, if we can work together.

MB: What can others learn from this project?
SH: Collaboration and partnership working is essential. It helps us cover more area, draw from more people’s experience and knowledge, and ultimately get more done.

What is one thing readers should take away from your experience?
SH: Be hopeful! And prioritise people and collaboration. We’ll achieve so much more through working together, at every level – from large land-owning partnerships like Cairngorms Connect, to people talking to their neighbours and local communities and coming together to fight the climate crisis. This is a problem for everyone, and we need everyone to fight it. 

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