RSPB Scotland Conservation Policy Officer, Alexa Morrison, takes a look at what wind farm developer, Scottish Power Renewables is doing to restore peatlands at Black Law wind farm, and why it is so important to protect our peatlands from development impacts in Scotland.

See Peat....Think Rainforest

Working in conservation policy means that I’m mostly office-based, so when I have an opportunity to get my wellies on and see some conservation work on the ground, I jump at the chance. So I was excited to be invited, with other RSPB Scotland colleagues, to visit Black Law wind farm to learn about progress with peatland restoration work. 

Figure 1: Black Law wind farm pictured in summer

Black Law is a 54-turbine wind farm, built in 2005, making it one of the largest and one of the first operational sites in the UK. So why is RSPB Scotland interested in this site? 

The developer, Scottish Power Renewables, had to remove approximately 470ha of conifer plantation (about 650 football pitches) to make way for the turbines. The trees had been planted on deep peat, over 4m deep in some areas, which was drained historically for commercial plantation forestry. 

RSPB Scotland strongly supports renewable energy to help meet our important climate targets – but it is crucial that wind farms are built in the right places, in harmony with nature. Peatlands present the industry with both challenges and opportunities. They are a crucial home for nature, with beautiful characteristic Sphagnum mosses providing the ‘building blocks’ for species such as common lizards, dragonflies, hares, curlews and golden plover, to name but a few.

Common Lizard on sphagnum moss

They are also a massive carbon sink: peatlands in Scotland are thought to store 1.6 billion tonnes of carbon. Keeping this carbon locked up in the soil is critical: a loss of only 1% of it would equal our total annual domestic greenhouse gas emissions. For these reasons, blanket bog (the main peatland habitat type in Scotland), is often described as ‘Scotland’s rainforest’.

Scottish Planning Policy recognises this, and sets out that deep peat and priority peatland habitat should be given ‘significant protection’ in the planning system. Industry-body Scottish Renewables have also recognised the need to avoid deep peat and pursue restoration opportunities in the ‘Wind Farms and Peatland Good Practice Principles’ (pictured below).

To avoid harming wildlife and undermining the carbon benefits of green energy, developers therefore need to avoid sensitive peatlands. In some cases, however, if carefully managed, wind farms can deliver wildlife benefits in addition to clean energy, by restoring damaged peatlands.

Planning conditions required SPR to implement a Habitat Management Plan on the site, over 1440ha, with the core aim of restoring blanket bog habitat on both the areas of damaged open mire and previously afforested peatland habitat. Removing plantations from deep peat is a good thing for both wildlife and the climate, and something that RSPB Scotland is also doing in places like our Forsinard reserve in partnership with Forestry Commission and SNH, to enable the natural flora and fauna to recover. 

Our Forsinard reserve, where RSPB Scotland is removing forestry from peatland

The day was hosted by SPR’s ecologists and Strath Caulaidh, the consultants who worked with SPR to develop restoration techniques. After a presentation and a quick cuppa in the site’s control building, we headed out in our hard hats. Walking across blanket bog is a little bit like walking over a sponge, and I began to fear that my wellies might not be up to the job. I also noticed I was the only one without waterproof trousers. Spot the office-based policy nerd.  

Stump flipping 

Peatland restoration techniques are far from an exact science, but SPR have monitored the site since before construction to gain an understanding of the site hydrology, and identify what is preventing natural recovery. ‘Traditional’ methods such as ditch blocking with dams can help on damaged open mire habitat, but on previously afforested sites further intervention is required. Innovative techniques such as ground smoothing (flipping the stumps and regen into the furrows and then tracking over the area with the aim of levelling the ridged ground left behind by the plantations) have been shown to work by controlling conifer regeneration and bringing the water table closer to the surface. 

Watching a demonstration of this technique illustrated clearly just how wet blanket bog is, and the conditions that create the uniqueness of this habitat. Even standing some metres away from the digger as it moved across the soupy peat surface, it was a bit like standing on a bowl of jelly while someone wobbles the bowl. Working on a digger on peat is definitely not a job for the weak-stomached, perhaps unless you’ve got a stash of seasickness pills in the glove-box!

Detailed monitoring is taking place to understand how these methods are affecting things like vegetation growth and site hydrology. Scottish Power should be commended for their commitment to achieving quality restoration at this site, and we look forward to seeing continued progress. These experiences also need to be shared and lessons learned by the industry as a whole.

By avoiding sensitive peatlands, and maximising opportunities for restoration at wind farm sites, the industry can make a meaningful contribution to habitat restoration. But we need developers to set and maintain high standards, and we need decision-makers to ensure that we avoid losing any more of our precious deep peat resource.

We need to ‘see peat...think rainforest.’