This reflective diary post, considering the damaging past, ambitious present and hopeful future of our peatlands, presents the experience of Amanda and Erika from a unique point of view – seeing the mysterious, surprisingly colourful and lively peat bog character.
Erika Tonhauser, a Glasgow Caledonian University Environmental Management student and summer 2021 Cairngorms Connect intern, worked through August and September as an assistant monitoring officer on a project related to ongoing peatland restoration work in the hills around An Lurg and Bile Buidhe on the RSPB Abernethy Reserve. Covering an area of approximately 1500 hectares, she was collecting data on peatlands vegetation cover - and in the process learned to see peatlands as a unique opportunity to deeply connect with the inspiring nature of the Cairngorms.
Amanda Thomson, an artist and writer, joined the monitoring survey to learn more about peatland restoration and Erika’s project. Amanda, together with Robbie Synge (choreographer and filmmaker) and Elizabeth Reeder (writer) are Artists in Residence with Cairngorms Connect through the Endangered Landscapes Artists Residency programme, and throughout the year will be learning and making work about Cairngorms Connect and running movement and writing workshops.
Misty image of peatlands past
Day 1, early August.
I park and lock my E-bike below a young juniper tree at Bynack Stables, take out my monitoring tablet and weather writer, and start heading up towards An Lurg. The day is grey and thick fog rolls peacefully down from the hills. As I walk, I curiously inspect the large, uncovered patches of bare peat and when I am somewhere near An Lurg cairn, light shower comes on. The atmosphere around this vast open space, very quiet and seemingly empty, is almost black & white - what makes me feel nostalgic and I start reflecting on the past of this place, and my mission here.
I remember that there are three main types of peatlands in Scotland: blanket bogs - where An Lurg peatlands belong, raised bogs and fens. Bogs are formed thanks to complex interactions between geology, soil properties, topography and climate and are usually covered by diverse vegetation - the colourful sphagnum mosses or different grass and shrub types. This makes me frown - how come then that all these vast areas of bare peat are surrounding me?
The story of each peat bog is different - it can be a complex combination of environmental factors, land use and land management that writes a peatland’s life story. I, however, learn later from research and local communities that all the eroded gullies (erosion channels) and peat hags (isolated islands of peat) exist in the An Lurg area most likely due to management fires aiming to improve grazing and grouse moor management, but also historically high numbers of sheep and deer grazing in the area. I imagine replacing the peaceful bog with fire smoke or white flocks of sheep, and suddenly see why me, and thousands of other people all around the UK and across the globe, are part of this urgent restoration mission. Because peat is made of partially decomposed remains which have accumulated at the surface of the soil profile, peatlands store a lot of carbon - meaning once damaged and exposed, peat releases carbon and other greenhouse gases. Additionally, peat erosion affects water – it can increase water peak flows, potentially causing flooding further downstream, but can also reduce water tables and quality and increase sedimentation, damaging local biodiversity.