The peat debate: should peat bogs be utilised as a resource or conserved as rare natural habitats?

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The peat debate: should peat bogs be utilised as a resource or conserved as rare natural habitats?


In 1988 the Secretary of State gave clearance to the Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) to designate up to half of the remaining 3500 km2 of peatland in Caithness and Sutherland as Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). Four years later, Highland Regional Council (HRC) identified Caithness as an area strategically suited to the development of peat extraction on a commercial scale (Lavers & Haines-Young, 1995).

Background on peat:

The peat bogs of Britain represent some of the very last remnants of this country's primeval landscape. Peatlands cover more than 500 million hectares of the global land-surface and a significant proportion lies in northern temperate Europe (Lindsay, 1993). Peat bogs cover 1.5 million hectares of Britain and 1.95 million hectares of Scotland, which accounts for 18.4% of the United Kingdom's land-surface (Bragg & Tallis, 2001).

Peat bog is raised above the mineral groundwater table and thus supplied directly by precipitation (Goode & Ratcliffe, 1977).

Peat is a soil that is made up of the partially decomposed remains of dead plants which have accumulated on top of each other in waterlogged places for thousands of years. Peat is brownish-black in appearance and in its natural state is composed of 90% water and 10% solid material. It consists of Sphagnum moss along with the roots, leaves, flowers and seeds of heathers, grasses and sedges. Occasionally the trunks and roots of trees, such as Scots pine, oak, birch and yew are also present in the peat. The accumulation of peat occurs in areas where the rate of plant production exceeds the rate of plant decomposition. Complete plant decomposition is prevented in waterlogged areas, such as peatlands. Climatic conditions such as high rainfall and lower...