The Role of Sphagnum Mosses in Peatland Restoration

In August this year RSPB Scotland started a large scale project on Abernethy National Nature Reserve to restore 90ha of heavily degraded peatland.  Peatland Project Manager Sally Phillips describes the work involved and the vital role of sphagnum mosses.

The peatland restoration area on Bile Buidhe, to the East of the reserve, is around a 10km drive from the public road and sits at 680m to 730m above sea level. Work at this height is really challenging and the technical terrain makes access to the site slow. In total there is around 1400ha of degraded peatland across the Abernethy Reserve so we have a lot of restoration work ahead of us.

 Peatland_Sally_2Excavators arriving at the Bile Buidhe site in August 2023 © Sally Phillips, RSPB Scotland

McDougall Plant Ltd were awarded the first phase of work at Bile Buidhe and began working on site on this August. The restoration work comprises of a combination of machine work and hand-built techniques to restore the eroded peatland. We currently have two excavators working on site, both equipped with extra wide tracks which reduce ground pressure and allow the machines to navigate deep and soft areas of peatland.

The main aim of the work is to slow the flow of water across the site and revegetate any bare peat to protect it from further erosion. Gullies can be blocked using peat where possible and other materials, such as coir logs (rolls of biodegradable coconut fibre) and peat filled sacks, where machine access isn’t possible. This creates a system of small pools of water held behind peat dams.

Peatland_Sally_6Comparison photos show an area of the site before and after restoration work © Sally Phillips, RSPB Scotland

Peat hags are a sign of erosion, where an isolated bank of peat is exposed causing it to dry out and blow or wash away. Peat hags can be reprofiled by covering the exposed area. Where there is suitable vegetation available on site, this is transplanted by machine onto the bare peat in the form of turfs. In places where there isn’t enough vegetation to cover bare peat, a combination of mulch and geotextile is used.

Peatland_Sally_3Sphagnum rich mulch used to treat bare peat areas © Sally Phillips, RSPB Scotland

The mulch is harvested from a local donor site and has a good mix of heathers, grasses, and mosses. This is pressed down onto the bare peat evenly and then a coir-based geotextile is placed on top and pegged down. This combination allows the bare peat a protective layer during winter months but also provides a good source of seed to hopefully stimulate growth on the bare peat.

At 700m the opportunities for growth are limited by a very short growing season of 6–8 weeks. Many areas of the blanket bog across the high ground at Abernethy is showing positive signs of regeneration, so hopefully the interventions that we make will help to speed up the work that nature is already doing on the site.

Peatland_Sally_4Sphagnum mosses found onsite © Sally Phillips, RSPB Scotland

An important part of this restoration work is creating opportunities for sphagnum mosses to recolonise parts of the bog. Sphagnum is a vital part of the process of peat formation so the more sphagnum on site the better. Creating small shallow pools where sphagnum mosses can easily colonise is important. As part of the hand work, we will also be doing some sphagnum planting to encourage growth. This involves harvesting sphagnum from donor sites close to the restoration area and spreading these in pools behind peat dams or pushing small plugs of sphagnum into the wetter areas of bare peat at the base of gullies.

Sphagnum can hold up to 10 times its weight in water which is important for keeping the bog wet through out the year and helping it to function even during drier spells. In some areas of the restoration site there are tree stumps and pieces of very old bog wood preserved in the peatland which have been uncovered by the eroding peat. Where possible these are placed into the pools formed behind peat dams to create woody debris and encourage more growth.

Peatland_Sally_5Sphagnum moss plays an important role in keeping the blanket bog wet throughout the year © Sally Phillips, RSPB Scotland

All this work will help to return this small part of the blanket bog to a healthier state, which in turn will have benefits for carbon sequestration; reducing flood risk downstream as more water is held in the upper catchments; and the water quality should also improve as a result. The more natural system of pools and standing water has benefits for species such as Dunlin and Plover. On a recent visit to the site, I watched a Common Hawker Dragonfly dancing around between some of the newly created pools.

The peatland work at RSPB Scotland's Abernethy National Nature Reserve is funded by Peatland Action administered by the Cairngorm National Park’s Peatland Action team.

RSPB Scotland works closely with the team at the Cairngorms National Park to develop and deliver the project to ensure work is being carried out effectively and to a high standard.


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