Understanding UK peatlands 


JNCC and a wide partnership of bodies have commissioned research into the Greenhouse Gas and carbon (C) fluxes associated with UK peatlands. Two research reports (No's. 442 and 443) are now available reviewing the existing evidence for peatland emissions, and another Eroding peat hag and ancient Scot's pine tree stump, Rannoch Moor, West Highland Area © Lorne Gill_SNHreport provides improved knowledge of peatland types, their distribution and status.


Peatland ecosystems are important habitats recognised under international and national legislation.  As well as having unique biodiversity, over time natural peatlands can capture and store carbon, removing greenhouse gasses (GHGs) from the atmosphere.  Carbon is laid down in the form of partially decomposed plant and animal remains, as decay is limited by waterlogged conditions.  Over the past 10,000 years, UK peatlands have sequestered around 5.5 billion tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere, which dwarfs the 150 million tonnes stored in our woodlands.  Peatlands therefore contain over half the ~10 billion tonnes of carbon stored in UK soil. 


Undamaged peatlands accumulate carbon in peat material much faster than it is naturally lost.  However, human activities can alter the balance between accumulation and loss, turning the peatland into a source of carbon.  Peatland ecosystems have been extensively degraded in recent times through a variety of activities, such as drainage and cultivation.  Many of these processes lower the water level, producing more aerobic conditions, which encourages decomposition and rapid release of greenhouse gases (GHGs) to the atmosphere. These activities can also increase the amount of dissolved or suspended carbon lost to adjacent water bodies and represent significant environmental concerns.


Efforts to restore damaged UK peatlands are increasing with a focus on restoring the natural waterlogged conditions, usually for biodiversity, archaeological and hydrological reasons.  However, re-wetting peat produces methane (CH4), which is a considerably more powerful greenhouse gas than CO2, and the short to medium-term effects of restoration on the GHG flux from peatland is poorly understood. Restoration aimed at conserving or enhancing carbon stocks and mitigating climate change may require different approaches to biodiversity restoration which have, until recently, been secondary or low priority aims.


With recognition of the effects of climate change and the UK entering its second carbon budget period, the ecosystem services provided by peatlands for regulating carbon stocks have become increasingly important to understand.  Long-term restoration could produce a significant reduction in UK carbon emissions, but a greater understanding of the GHG effects of different management strategies is needed for peats to contribute effectively to the UK’s carbon reporting.  The extent of peatlands under different management regimes and the amount of GHG/carbon that is stored or lost under these needs to be confirmed.  This will allow the production of emission factors to quantify the GHG/carbon flux.   The same information will support practical decisions about how to manage peatlands for maximum benefits for all interests – from biodiversity to climate change mitigation.


Contact File


Linda Birkin

Surveillance Assistant

Tel: +44 (0)1733 866871


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