Boggy details: Restoring peatlands at scale

17 January 2024

Take a drive around Scotland and you'll likely be enchanted by the sun setting behind the foggy purple mountains, across a vast wetland of green and brown tufts. 

Once labelled ‘desolate areas of unproductive land’, these complex interwoven ecosystems define a hostile landscape that is crucial to keeping the planet alive. We are, of course, talking about peatlands. 

The term 'peatland' is commonly used to describe land with soil containing a minimum of 30cm peat depth. Peat is a type of soil formed through dead vegetative matter resisting decomposition, leading to the accumulation of organic matter over many millennia.  

There are multiple types of peat and they are not limited to specific vegetations – in fact, the largest reserves of peat can be found in Indonesia, whilst the widest expanse of unified peatland is in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Here, tropical conditions combined with waterlogged anaerobic conditions – where the oxygen has been depleted – have led to deep stores of carbon-rich vegetative matter. 

Peatlands through macro and micro lenses 

Multiple conditions can lead to the formation of peat but simply put, the rate of vegetative matter decomposition needs to be slower than the rate of accumulation. 

In the Northern Hemisphere, peatland accumulates due to a combination of low temperatures, life-restricting acidity (or alkalinity), and waterlogged anaerobic conditions. Across the UK, this can lead to peat formations in the form of blanket bogs, fens, mires, saltmarshes, swamps, raised bogs, carrs, and more. 

The most common type of peat is formed by the humble Sphagnum species, a type of small moss that grows in permanently wet conditions due to groundwater supply or near-permanent atmospheric water sources like fog or rain. 

The moss absorbs water like a sponge and swells, retaining water as a precious resource in times of need and releasing it slowly when in excess.  

Over time, these waterlogged moss communities give rise to a dizzying number of specialised plant species, ranging from rare orchids to microscopic bryophytes to fluorescent orange fungi. The fauna that follows is equally dazzling – spanning endangered dragonflies, butterflies, migratory birds, amphibians, beetles, mammals, arachnids, caddisflies, molluscs, and reptiles to name just a few.

A window to the past 

Yet, peat bogs serve an even higher purpose than providing a home to some of nature's most diverse species. The high acidity or alkalinity found within the wet ground also serves as a time capsule for the history of life on Earth.  

Indeed, peatlands provide the ideal conditions for the preservation of organic matter, from human artefacts to long-extinct fauna and precious pollen records.  

Human burials have long taken place in these sacred places, with near-intact remains discovered dating back 5000 years. It is estimated that over 22,500 archaeological sites may survive within peat deposits. 


The role of peatlands in water regulation and carbon storage 

Beyond archaeology, peat is vital to the future of human existence. By serving as sponges, peat regulates the water flow across entire hydrological units. In times of excess, the dark soils swell to become over 90% water while the vegetation expands to hold the precious liquid within its grips, releasing it slowly in times of drought. This swell-shrink capacity effectively regulates floods while ensuring constant water supplies when water is lacking.  

In terms of carbon storage, no terrestrial habitat rivals the climate regulating role of peatlands. Despite covering only 3% of the Earth's surface, they store over 550 gigatonnes of carbon. This represents more than twice the total amount of carbon stored in all the world's forests. 

The decline of peatlands 

Nonetheless, centuries of being classified as 'desolate unproductive land' have taken their toll.  

Systematic legislation encouraging the draining of peatlands to convert into arable lands resulted in the devastation of 72% of England's lowland peats. Moreover, draining initiatives to create upland pastures in the 1950s and 60s have lain over 1.5 million hectares of peatland to waste.  

During that time, tax incentives for turning peatlands to commercial forestry have effectively decimated the habitats, destroying in England alone: 

  • 92% of raised bogs 
  • 32% of fens 
  • 9% of blanket bogs 

This coincided with the rise in commercial hunting, with remaining peatlands frequently burned to promote the establishment and regular growth of young heather shoots for grouse feed. This came at the expense of other slower growing species.  

Concurrently, peat cuttings – long a culturally important source of fuel – became the fashion for the horticultural industry as compost to supplement residential and commercial floristry. 

The result has been a near insurmountable loss in ecosystem regulation:

  • Habitat destruction has led to widespread species loss in both diversity and abundance 
  • The systematic lowering of peatland watertables encouraged extensive oxidation of organic material and huge subsequent carbon emissions 
  • The dug-out drains directing water removal were eroded by the sheer volume of water flowing out 

Today, degraded peatlands live on as scarified landscapes. 

Dendritic pattern on degraded peatland.

New incentives to restore peatland at scale  

Thankfully, the creation of The Peatland Code in collaboration with the IUCN, alongside national grants such as Nature for Climate and Peatland Action, are incentivising landowners and corporates alike to restore our peatlands.  

By offering financial help for the plugging of historic drains, transplantation of healthy vegetation, re-profiling of depleted landscapes like the one above, and ensuring all initiatives are appropriately surveyed within the context of each specific site, the work to protect our peatlands has begun in earnest. 

This is only the start of our mission at Zulu Ecosystems. We owe it to the dragonflies. We owe it our ancestors. 

Peatland restoration in the Cairngorm National Park
Source: Taiga Upland Photography

Zulu Ecosystems: Bringing intention to action 

At Zulu Ecosystems, we're committed to helping landowners and corporates restore landscapes at scale. 

By combining the latest science with in-house peatland expertise, and incorporating econometric models and land data, we support landowners in evaluating, financing, and delivering large-scale ecosystem regeneration projects.

While we currently offer analyses and grants for three types of peatland (blanket bog, raised bog, and fens), we are expanding our capabilities to include saltmarsh preservation and forest-to-bog restoration. 

Alongside a team of committed surveyors and ecologists, our approach verifies peatland condition within the context of each specific site. In doing so, our approaches ensure:  

  • The restoration of appropriate hydrological functioning and water flow regulation 
  • The return of a vastly biodiverse landscape 
  • Strong natural capital outcomes  
  • Community collaboration and outreach 


Contact us 

For more information on how you can restore land as a landowner or a volunteer, please contact

Littlewood, N., Anderson, P., Artz, R., Bragg, O., Lunt, P., & Marrs, R., 'Peatland Biodiversity – a technical review for the IUCN Peatland Program', IUCN Peatland Programme (December 2010). Available here. [Accessed 16 January 2024].

Gearey, B., Bermingham, N., Chapman, H., Charman, D., Fletcher, W., Fyfe, R., Quartermaine, J., & Van de Noort, R., 'Peatlands and the historic environment: IUCN UK Peatland Programme', IUCN Peatland Programme (December 2010). Available here. [Accessed 16 January 2024].

Sloan, T., Payne, R. J., Anderson, A. R., et al., 'Peatland afforestation in the UK and consequences for carbon storage', Mires and Peat, vol. 1, (2018). ISSN 1819-754X.

IUCN, 'About peatlands: IUCN UK Peatland Programme', IUCN Peatland Programme. Available here. [Accessed 16 January 2024].

Written by
Capucine Jacob-Chavagnac
Lead Researcher, Soil Specialist
Zulu Ecosystems
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