Peat Cultures Workshop at Knowetop Lochs, Galloway

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Peatlands are a defining feature of Galloway, and on Tuesday 25th June, a group of creative practitioners gathered with staff from the Crichton Carbon Centre and Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership to spend time on a peatbog. This was a forerunner of a forthcoming restoration programme, Peatland Connections, that will focus on the important role that peatland plays in Galloway Glens landscapes. Peat Cultures is a strand within this programme drawing out different cultural aspects. This workshop was an opportunity for participants to learn more about the thinking behind the project as a whole, and an invitation to work creatively with its themes and develop different ways of getting to know these landscapes.

Dr Emily Taylor of the Crichton Carbon Centre and myself (Kate Foster) welcomed participants in the magnificent and accommodating Corsock Village Hall.

Introduction by Emily Taylor: background to peatland restoration and the site at Knowetop Lochs

Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership covers the Ken-Dee catchment, whose headwaters include a huge area of peatland mostly used for commercial forestry. Forestry and Land Scotland (formally Forest Enterprise) and the Crichton Carbon Centre are planning peatland restoration within a large-scale forestry programme. Carbon sequestration is just one of the benefits – others include water quality, biodiversity, landscape. It’s about culture too: what do local people want to see happening? It’s important to make connections between people in the area and how the local countryside is managed – to help make landscape decisions at local scale. Working with artists opens up different ways of communicating. Peatland restoration in general has to learn how to communicate why public money is being put into restoration.

Knowetop Lochs is a little bit of deep peat. This is not a pristine site but pockets of lovely bog habitat still thrive; there is probably no pristine bog left in Scotland. We will see cotton grass, forestry, heather, and now in June it is not too overgrown. This is typical landscape in Galloway, a peaty pocket within a matrix of other habitat and land use. Around here it is mainly farm and forest.

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Perhaps we think when we are going into countryside, we are in wilderness but really we are somewhere that is intensively managed. Aerial photographs show peatland and its condition and there is commercial forestry on deep peat (more than 0.5 m deep) in this area. It has been drained and ploughed, probably herbicide to clear the heather, and fertilizer. Elsewhere peatland is drained for grazing.

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Copies of the Peatland Condition Assessment Guide are available, free. These explain practically what we are talking about.  We have four categories (near-natural, modified,  drained systems, and actively eroding places) which link to carbon figures, so we can communicate how much carbon is being lost in an area, and the carbon benefits of undertaking restoration. We are condensing science to something that is practical and easy to understand.

At the outset of Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership we had a workshop at Beggers Moss, which is a little bit of peat that was too deep to plant, in a sea of conifer plantations. It has been left to do its own thing – it is an oasis. This got us thinking about other areas too.

What are peatlands?

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Drawing: Kate Foster 2019

Peatlands are unique! Peat is made up of organic matter that has not fully decayed, so vegetation builds up. This slowly decays and is acidic and starts to compact. Lowland raised bogs are big mounds of peat which filled in glacial lakes after the last Ice Age. Ice melted and became wetlands that infilled with reeds and eventually became ombrotrophic (“rain-fed”) peatland. So these are nutrient poor systems, just depending on rainfall. Fens are wetlands with more nutrients. This will become clear when we do a peat probe. Peat forms at about a rate of 1 metre per thousand years, so you might be standing on 8000 years of history.

Peatland Connections has a peat corer. The workshop plan included bringing up a core between us.

Kate Foster: some lines of enquiry for peat cultures

Peatland restoration – like all land reclamation – involves re-narrating ideas about our past and future, as well as doing the work on the ground. There are many possible lines of enquiry into peatland, and there is a big change of emphasis in how people are relating to these landscapes.

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Print: Kate Foster 2019

New themes move into the foreground, especially that of ‘carbon’.  It is no longer a discourse about wastes and wilderness; the image of peatland is being re-written. All of us here are now involved in making new stories about peatland. Also, there is a wide range of new publications.

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Six MSPs addressed the first People’s Climate Assembly outside Holyrood Parliament (on the 20th June, prompted by Extinction Rebellion). Peatland restoration has become an important part of government targets, as Claudia Beamish (Scottish Labour Environment Climate Change and Land Reform Spokesperson) mentioned.

When I first came to Scotland I saw peat hags and thought this was normal. From the publications by Emily and her colleagues, I learnt “Bare Peat” is actually an alarm signal.

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Print drawing: Kate Foster 2019

I discovered that ‘squagy’ peat – old and compressed peat near the bog’s bottom – makes a good printing medium. The above image is inspired by a fieldworker probing peat depth. It is one of a series, Mending the Blanket. This was made in appreciation of the work of the proejct staff. Doing this work in isolated places requires tenacity.

Once the living layer bog is restored, we can turn the image the other way up!

Making peat prints showed how friable this is as a material. It washes away in a moment, and blows into dust even in the still air of Edinburgh College of Art.

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In 2016, at a Borderlands Network meeting, Dr Lauren Parry led the extraction of a peat core on Kirkconnell Flow, near Dumfries.  We thought of it as ‘getting down to the Ice Age” when we reached the boulder clay. This core went down to 6 metres –  you see some ‘ghost prints’ of each section above.  A botanist said she got goose-pimples when she saw the boulder clay emerge from the depth, thinking of how it had been made by glaciers grinding stone into ‘flour’ and depositing this as the temperature fluctuated. Separately, I’ll document the return of this core, with the permission of Scottish Natural Heritage (the site managers).

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Image: Kate Foster 2019

The quote above conveys the nub of my experimental drawing enquiry: a peatbog has a vulnerable living layer that creates an environmental archive beneath itself. How can I better connect to this as a vital living space for many other species?

IMG_3194These are some ideas that have come up – above is a “viewfinder” with some suggestions. For example, how can I position myself differently? We use a frame all the time: choosing a time, a space, and editing things consciously and unconsciously. We have limits to our knowledge and we only have human perceptions, a sensorium bequeathed by evolution.

However, Emily pointed out that drones and remote sensing via satellite are increasingly used to survey the 2 million hectares of Scottish peatland. The traditional half a metre quadrat used by botanical survey on the ground has become aerial, researchers looking down at ten kilometres square.

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Another influence is Approaching Choreography by Claire Pençak, who developed a Proposal for Engagement: an Action Score for Place-Making. She proposed sixty ways of thinking about how we and other species are using a diversity of spaces out of doors.

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On peatbogs I have experienced a sense of puzzlement, even disintegration (especially of paper!).  Including myself in the picture helps me consider what influences me, for example I’ve found the practice of scientific plant illustration is sometimes unhelpful as it tends to portray plants as single stationary objects. I am interested in interactions, seeing connections over time and place.

Small movements catch your eye on the bog. These cotton grass seeds have fallen on an annual from last year. I see this as a moment of ‘shimmer’, a tiny sequestration of carbon. Cotton grass is an important constituent of peat: seeing this seasonal pattern is  a way of relating to the time implied by the bog’s depth.

Arriving at the deep bog in  Knowetop Lochs Reserve


At Knowetop Lochs, Emily pointed out aspects of the site. When it was afforested, the peat was ploughed to make ridges for planted trees to grow on. Cross-drains lower the watertable, and a compacted track changes how the water moves through the peat.


The large amount of heather shows this bog is still rather dry.  However the presence of sphagnum moss (with its amazing water-holding capacity) and cotton grass was a good sign.


Having a high water table underpins all the other processes in a peatbog. Sphagnum creates an acidic bog with slow decay rates. Bogs sequester carbon slowly compared to trees. The climate equation depends on what happens to that tree: if it is harvested for biomass – even timber for a house – then the carbon is not stored for long. Based on current cover, peatbogs contain more carbon than forestry, but the depth of all the peat is not known. The current estimate is that there is 25 times more carbon in peat than in forests, UK wide.


Peatlands secure a long term carbon store, but erosion means carbon is lost into the atmosphere very quickly. Methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) is naturally emitted by peatbog  but sphagnum’s methanotropic bacteria ‘eat’ methane. If a peatbog is in balance, methane is not a big issue.

This area would lave been a lake – a mineral bund infilled by water which over time became ombrotrophic, becoming an acidic bog supporting sphagnum. Within this time there were periods when it was dominated by sedge, heather, and woodland. Machines on a bog expose tree roots, especially willow, birch, alder.  Over 8000 years, climate has changed.

Emily discussed several points we were curious about.

What about the peat extraction sites you see in Dumfries and Galloway? Peat is still being used as a growing medium and, elsewhere, for power on an industrial scale. There is ongoing commercial extraction with potentially an increasing global market especially as soils deteriorate in China (though no new licences can currently be given in UK).

Will global warming – and the extreme weathers we will get – impact the state of the bog? Yes, very dry springs are an issue. A bog should be more resilient if you raise the watertable, and less likely to dry out than if it was drained.  In Germany now there are sites that are so dry in summer that they are pumping water back into peatlands in summer – perhaps not sustainable in the long term.

What about heather burning? Grouse chicks need to eat invertebrates that live amongst sphagnum. Heather burning creates a mix of heights so grouse chicks can both eat and hide. Environmentally? Generally intensity of management for just one species does not really give ecological benefit. Burning has been going on for a long time, it is a quick management tool but intense burning can mean heather is replaced by molinia – the dry hummocks of grass common in Galloway. This is a result of over-grazing and over-burning. All our systems are no longer natural: you might need fire in some areas. Possibly the Flow Country is as natural as it gets, but there has been fire there too.

If this area is 8000 years old, then how would it have been for Neolithic people, 5000 years ago? A lot more standing water. What would they have made of it? Bogs would have been important. Think of Bog Bodies, Bog Butter! It was special, and useful. Sphagnum was used until recently as wound dressings. Diaries about collecting sphagnum have been found recently in Galloway, and people had family memories of picking sphagnum extending to Perthshire.

Probing the depth

How deep is the peat here?  An orange peat probe is flexible fibreglass which you push down until you hit bed rock. You can tell how good the condition is by how smoothly the probe goes in and out. Poor condition forestry peat feels much more ‘crinkly’. We reached 4.5 metres and then 6 metres.

Images above courtesy of Elizabeth Tindal

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What is the deepest peat? The deepest found by Peatland Action in Scotland is around 11 metres. When you do a survey, it is a point every 100 metres.


We found sundews, looked at lichens and learnt that wood ants love sphagnum to nest in. We picnicked where there were least flies.


Taking a core

A Russian corer needs to be turned clockwise to cut against resistance and close its flap. It brought up a column of peat, changing in texture as it went down and changing colour as it oxidised in air. At six metres deep, this core visualised a time line of history – 6000 to 8000 years old.

Sphagnum grows from the top (its capitulum) and decays at the bottom. It slowly turns into peat as it goes down. Even for quite a dry site, the peat still was very wet.

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The slice of peat in Emily’s hands, above, represents perhaps 100 years growth. It was near the surface and so less compressed.

Do you ever hit anything? Yes, tree roots, and standing stones in the west. In Ireland the peat extraction site workers often come across archaeological sites.  There they are systematically stripping off the whole surface.

 A vehicle in the bog? There was reminiscence about a large vehicle going over into the bog on the road Newton Stewart to New Galloway.  The cab filled up with water and the driver got out – but the rescue team had to bring a huge crane and build a platform. It was a tourist attraction!

What about peat pipes at Silver Flowe?  Silver Flowe is a blanket bog in good condition,  perhaps 6 metres deep. There are slower rates of deposition on blanket bog that lowland raised bogs so there the rate might be possibly 5000 years for two metres. It has sink holes and an underpeat water course. Peat pipes are natural openings within the peat that are also increased by forestry. The sink-holes are hard to see, but you can pick them out because they are grassy around their edges.

How long does sphagnum live? A classic experiment with sphagnum took discs from a peat core and grew fragments on a windowsill, which grew. Pollen from other plants is a key thing that can be revealed by a scientific study of a peat core.

A Dorodango (shiny mudball in the Japanese tradition) began to take form in the hands of the Freelance Ranger. The technique of turning it migrates small pieces to surface and then it is left to dry out slowly.

Other conversations were about a sense of going backward in time; a love of peat from the smell of a home fire, how peaty water stains bath porcelain, the possibility of extracting ochre. We returned, some with some peat for inspiration.

Discussion in Corsock Hall

Peatland Connections plans more workshops, and this first one was especially intended for creative practitioners. We talked about developing an interest in peat through different kinds of art practice, and what our context of an ecological emergency means.

Emily outlined that the eventual Peatland Connections exhibition plan is about bringing together art, science, and music to find different ways to reach people.

Coffee and cake (and the absence of flies) helped discussion develop. Here are some headlines, grouping themes in the conversation.

Kate, being asked more about using peat to make prints:  I wanted to understand the peatbog through making prints. It would be possible to over-focus on the aesthetics of a medium but you need to make connections. With Emily’s voice in my ear saying ‘Bare Peat is an alarm signal’, I turned to illustration to document a Peatland Action project in a remote part of Southern Uplands, which was reprofiling peat hags on blanket bog. This became a series of print/drawings, Mending the Blanket.

How do you overcome the challenges of this particular landscape in engaging wider audiences?

“I’ll be taking away with me the memory of the flies.”

A formal element could help, where people put on a kind of costume. Some people might not feel they need it, but it still could become a performative element. Knowing you have the right gear helps. You can go at different times of year, and use rhymes as well as clothing. It’s about finding things that can make you feel better.

A fieldworker might just see insects as part of the landscape, an indicator of the healthy bog, and look straight through the flies.

“I’ve got so used to focusing on the work itself that I have become used to not noticing the wind or the flies. But this can be unpleasant! Grim! Can be floundering around, with exhaustion perhaps – can be challenging.”

“But then we laugh and laugh!” Peat bogs are challenging, and this can also be celebrated.

If you grew up on bogs, can read them, but other people need time to learn to see where the dry and wet bits are – and also to recognise drains.

Perhaps we can do more to take things to people?

In rural areas, inclusivity means people coming from far via difficult public transport.

Word of mouth is powerful. So let’s tell people about peat!

It’s good to tune into culture of area – music jumps out in Galloway.

The area at the top of the catchment has seen movement of people historically. Hardly anyone goes there now – we have lost stories. We want to create new stories, things in future people remember, perhaps as sessions, or as a climate march.

People ask internationally: what does it mean that a climate emergency has been declared?

Dumfries and Galloway Council considers itself to be carbon neutral – but this is through offsetting.  Carbon sequestration through forestry is how the accounting is done. In rural areas people are often dependent on cars and have oil fired heating. We are exporting emissions elsewhere.  There is always a temptation politically to take the short-term route – for example, forestry. There is a need also to push action on transport, fertiliser use, and so on. £11m has jsut recently been allocated for Peatland Action, but peatland restoration is not just about carbon. Local drivers point to more direct benefits for communities and landowners.


What did artists feel about being in the bog this afternoon?

– Looking at it from further way, things will coalesce at home.

– I felt happy out there – peaceful, happy, engaged.- I will continue to tend the dorodango ball and make sure it does not crack. Might make a clay layer as a shell. This gives a story to tell, a reminder of the day.
– You may be the unfortunate one, to be a fly magnet.
– What really matters to me is being on the site, going and returning, reflection and conversation. Two hours on a sunny day feel might different than on a wet winter’s day when I fought through feeling alien by focussing on particularities.
– A moor can be an exposed place, it helps to look at small things such as sundew, cotton grass, a dragonfly.
– Sundews are my special study, but you can’t specify that you want to see this! You have to let your mind wander around. This gave me way of looking for them, learning that they are in lines, that people can walk on them. So will revisit sundew in different places, maybe creating performance, but not in a staged way.

– I liked it, I want to go back on my own wearing the right things, on a day when not so warm. I would walk up and down, thinking about duration, take video, photographs, work with this. You need to be introduced to a place before you can just go.

I don’t  understand why you say a peatbog does not look good! Where does this idea come from? In Greece the landscape is dry, but you still like it, and get used to these colours. You become used to looking at lines, rather than at greenery and flowers.

It is about where you grew up, too. Childhood years can inform what you have a passion, whether it’s brownfield sites or whether you want to spend holiday time camping on peatbog, or the seashore.

– I would like to work with some boulder clay. The undulation is significant, and hummocks – you can zoom in, find things inside.

-How can you present the depth of core sample? It took thousands of years to create so these ideas take time to percolate.

What about finding beauty in these places, how can you do it?

As one example, Kerry Morrison mentioned the Wetland life project being about communicating the value and beauty of mosquitoes. Artists are drawn to the challenging, and making sense of them. I’ve learnt about mosquitoes from scientists – they sing, males dance, to attract a mate – and won’t mate until they sing in harmony. And do murmurations. I think how can I work with that? and it can be truly beautiful.

There is a tactile response too – we all sat on the hummocks. It would be nice to see how long they take to bounce up. We left an impression!

This is a developing conversation: comments and contributions are welcome.

Emily Taylor led the thanks to everyone present for pushing boundaries of thinking on peatbogs. Our thanks also to Galloway Glens, Corsock Village Hall for accommodation, the Scottish Wildlife Trust for permission to hold the event at Knowetop Lochs reserve, and Pantea Armanfar for documenting the workshop.

Thank you to Morag Paterson for the photograph of a sundew below.

Morag Patterson sundew
Image of Sundew © Morag Paterson 2019

Further images by Kate Foster / Pantea Armanfar unless otherwise stated.

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