What happens if you use peat, that damp and dark material from the morass, as a way of getting to know Dutch landscapes?
In 2020, I came from Scotland to the Netherlands to pursue my environmental arts project and learn from wetlands researchers at Wageningen University. Covid lockdown made it hard to visit peatland themselves. Instead, I focussed on traces of peatlands around me – like a pot plant on my desk, neighbouring gardens, online museum images, and place-names on maps.
And how will my Veencultuur project interact with the Grote Kerk? What can this building and its history of faith prompt with my growing collection of altered compost bags and drawings? My project is about connections between people and peat over time, and what new peaty landscapes could be like.
Peatlands matter to people in so many different ways. RE-PEAT’s Global Peat Fest last May showed this really clearly.
Since peatlands are very much in the news just now, I can imagine you have lots of technical reports to read. So here are some images to help keep peatlands in mind.
This picture is of Silver Flowe in Galloway. It is one the best preserved peatbogs in South West Scotland. Like all healthy ‘squelchy’ wet peatlands, you can feel it move when you jump. I hope people in the future get to sense what it is like to walk on 95% water.
But you’ll know that most peat bogs in the UK don’t look healthy. It’s really urgent that they are restored and protected.
This was my banner for a peatbog workshop when families joined in with peatland restoration. The event was the first ever Sphagnum Splat; we helped bog moss grow again in areas of bare peat. This raised bog is near Silver Flowe and it has recently been re-wetted. Conifers that had been wrongly planted on peat soils had to be felled. Peatland restoration is part of a nature-based solution. And it is creating jobs.
Here’s an impression of different Bog Mosses under a microscope. These Sphagnum species absorb rain and can be more than 90% water.
I feel lucky to come from the UK which still has beautiful moorlands. In other countries, like the Netherlands, peat bogs have almost completely disappeared. All told, an unimaginable amount of peat has disappeared into the atmosphere and water-ways over the centuries. When peatlands are demolished, histories and sustainable futures disappear. So I really want you to protect those that remain.
Almost all brands of compost contain peat. It’s shameful that peatlands in UK and elsewhere are still being dug up and used in compost for gardens and horticulture. Surely gardeners would be upset if they knew about the damage this causes!
It’s ironic that sometimes peat compost is even used for plants that like arid conditions. Like a Cactus that I looked after in my old office.
Sadly, it didn’t really thrive. It would be better off in a desert – not on a wetland soil! So I made this image to help remember about not growing the wrong plants on peat.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Cacti – but they don’t need peatbogs.
My next drawing is a Water Table. The legs are different lengths because people don’t agree about the ideal height. Wetland species are finding it hard to hang on.
Right now, things seem to keep slipping off the Water Table.
But it’s urgent, for the climate and other reasons, to stop peatlands drying out.
Please get round the table and work out a new agricultural policy!
Please stop wetland drainage altogether.
Please support new methods of nurturing peatlands.
As artists we were proud to present together at Peat Fest. This was an informative, energetic, and diverse 24-hour global online event organised by RE-PEAT. Kate Foster and Pantea Shabahang.
RE-ENCOUNTERING: the presentation as a video
The discussion revolved around how connections to peatlands can be social and cultural, as well as scientific.
• One talking point was a peat core that had been extracted at a workshop in Kirkconnell Flow in SW Scotland (2016). During the workshop, people experienced the softness of a peatbog. Direct experience and sensing the landscape in different ways can develop emotional connections, and allow different kinds of learning and imagination.
• Exhibiting the peat core elsewhere gave people the sense that the compressed time of a peatbog became tangible, as texture and depth.
• The experience of going to a peatbog can include discomfort, and possibly apprehension, as well as excitement. Close acquaintance of peatlands can make them move between being mysterious and mundane, otherworldly and ordinary. But close-looking, perhaps finding small hidden plants, suggests intriguing ways to relate to peatland lives.
• Archaeological and historical study of how people interact with peatlands indicates connections were both ritual and functional; they did not necessarily play a negative role in people’s imagination – although this is how they have often latterly been perceived.
• We cannot leave our 21st century preconceptions behind, but archaeoloigcal reconstruction is also a way to imagine things differently.
• How might current human impacts be read in the peat, in thousands of years? This is the heart of our concerns.
In these thick peat deposits, paleoecologists can read the history of the land. They slide a long shining cylinder into the bog, cutting through layers of undecomposed plants, and extract a core of peat. By the plants that are present, the pollen grains trapped there, and the chemistry of the organic matter they can discern the changes in the lands. Changes in vegetation, changes in the climate, stretching thousands of years before , are all recorded there. What will they read in the layer that represents our time, our evanescent moment at the surface? We are responsible for that.
Quote: Robin Wall Kimmerer (2003:118) Gathering Moss: a natural and cultural history of mosses. Oregon State Univerity Press: Corvallis
• How does individual and socially engaged practice combine, say in the Peat Cultures project? It is Work + NetWork! Kate commented that the personal artwork she makes feeds into developing social practice, and vice versa since people’s responses feed into her individual work.
The scope of the Ramsar Culture Network:
The Ramsar Convention in 1971 was forward looking because the brief included cultural aspects of ecosystem management. Tradtional and indigenous mangement offer models of sustainabilty. The Ramsar cultural specialist sub-group includes an arts thematic group, in recognition that artists can expand the repetoire of ways that wetlands function in landscape and human society.
Pantea Shabahang is an Iranian artist working with experimental documentary, analogue photography and field recording to explore new ways of telling stories. She studies themes of the environment, immigration and wetlands. Pantea’s work on Sundew has been recently published as creative nonfiction in Plumwood magazine. Her recent release everydaymeal is available in different formats.
Kate Fosteris an environmental artist who initiated a project, Peat Cultures, to support peatland restoration in Southern Scotland. She is now learning about Dutch wetland cultures as artist in residence to the Home Turf Project in Wageningen University, the Netherlands. Further information here.
“I’d always thought that trees helped with carbon but I did not know how much carbon peat bogs hold, and how important they are.” Splat participant.
Galloway’s landscape is typically one of trees bordering grazing land and wetlands. People think about how trees sequestrate carbon quickly, but we also need to bear in mind how peatlands store carbon in the long term. They need to be protected to keep their carbon store in the ground.
Image: Sphagnum Splat Placard
Peat is created by bog mosses which make layers of carbon-rich material from air and rainwater. Peatlands comprise Scotland’s largest carbon store. Most peatbogs are in poor condition and need to be restored, not just for climate but also for wildlife, food production, and water quality.
Environmental managers now emphasise how important peatbogs are for ecosystem services and policy has changed. Formerly, people thought of peatbogs as unproductive land which should be brought into cultivation.
With forestry, the right tree species needs to be planted in the right place. Previous conifer planting on deep peatbogs is now regarded as unproductive and to have caused unanticipated problems like acidification. ‘Forest to Bog’ projects in Galloway Forest Park are one means by which peatbogs are being restored.
‘A bog functions when the water table is high. A high water table means that the bog is not releasing carbon into the atmosphere. The point of restoration is to stabilise the water table.’ Emily Taylor, Crichton Carbon Centre.
Earlier conifer plantations mistakenly planted on deep peat are felled, and the peatland can be nurtured back into life. The images below show the first flush of colonising plants.
Sphagnum species offer a natural path to climate action. Once mosses and sedges have started to grow, the bog as a whole can start to recover. The peat underneath will then be protected by a living layer of special bog plants. Sometimes these need to be introduced back into the area. Amazingly, Sphagnum can grow from the tiniest wee fragment on the surface. The different species each have their own preferred conditions, and will grow in the microclimate which is right for them. It’s hard to know exactly how the peatbog will shape itself given the changing levels of the water table, but having a range of native Sphagnum species is important.
Image: Sphagnum Splat Placard inspired by Jos Smith’s poem Upstream Thinking
Over thousands of years since the last Ice Age, these bog mosses played a central role in creating the raised bogs that are typical of Galloway’s landscape. It’s easy to become a moss enthusiast when you learn how Sphagnum mosses grow and what they do. Collectively they reach upwards to the light, and underneath their older strands become part of a deep, dark suspension. Sphagnum moss absorbs water and, with time, a raised bog grows in the landscape. A peatbog in good condition quakes when you walk on it because it is a liquid depth of several metres.
Dr Emily Taylor of the Crichton Carbon Centre is a specialist in sustainable land management. She is a peatland restoration expert and leads a training programme for Peatland Action, a Scottish government initiative.
The sites are often in remote places where large machinery is at work. How can people see and learn about such exciting and significant restoration work?
The Crichton Carbon Centre took the initiative to invited local people to come and help. People took in the message that peatlands need to be in good condition and made placards to communicate this.
Image: Placard created by Sphagnum Splat Participant
With permission of Forestry and Land Scotland, on 14th October a group gathered at Clatteringshaws Visitor Centre to help with the South Dee Moss Restoration, in a most symbolic, enjoyable and educational way.
Emily Taylor explained the concept behind the Sphagnum Splat.
“What the restoration site really needs is more Sphagnum, so we are going to try this innovative method. We’ve got some Sphagnum, and we’ll collect some more on the way. We are going to Splat the bog with Sphagnum! We’ll make balls with peat and Sphagnum, and hurl them across the bog.
It sounds wacky – and it has been the most bizarre access permission the Forestry has had, they said. But there is a scientific basis for it, and they are excited about this development too.
This is about celebrating the amazing work going on in Galloway, restoring bogs for carbon benefit as well as water quality and habitat.”
Emily Taylor, Splat Co-ordinator.
This concept appealed to people of all ages.
We set off at a brisk walk, with placards and all the kit needed for a Splat from the appointed place in the Forest Park.
We learned to identify and gather Sphagnum species on the way.
When we got to the edge of the South Dee Moss, Emily Taylor gathered us on a small hillock at the edge of the bog.
This area had been clear-felled of conifers and the low areas that had been deep bog had been flattened again. In terms of landscape restoration, the view to the Southern Upland Way could eventually open out.
Now the former drains are blocked, the water can rise again to create a bog. Historic aerial photos, taken before the trees were planted, show a landscape of deep peatbogs strung along the Black Water of Dee valley.
‘Right Tree – Right Place! That’s the thing!’
Some areas were always just too boggy to be planted and these are at the heart of the process of recovery. The aim is to help the peat to stay in the bog rather than wash into the watercourse.
Image: Placard by Splat Participants
We executed the plan to Splatter the bog so that bog mosses could grow in this vicinity – as well as the sedges which had already started to grow.
The joyful experience of the Sphagnum Splat has been captured in a short video by Jayne Murdoch of the Crichton Carbon Centre. It is available here on facebook and the quotes below give further responses.
‘We’ve never been to a bog before! We had no idea how important they were until we had contact with someone at the Crichton Carbon Centre. After hearing about the environment on the news lately it’s great to be able to come along and help make a difference.’
The event was celebrated with new lines for a well known tune, that became a Bog Anthem and was premiered with great gusto, and unique style.
What’s it like taking music instruments to a bog? Who persuaded you? [Another musician] phoned up and said: ‘Do you fancy playing Land of Hope and Glory in a peat bog?’ It seemed such a way out idea that we said yes!
This placard echoes the words of a poem inspired by restoration work elsewhere: “something as small as a wish can root and breathe the peat alive again.”
Banner: Sphagnum Splat Placard inspired by Jos Smith’s poem Upstream Thinking
Although Emily Taylor recognised the need for an army of Splatters to scale up the restoration effort, she was pleased with progress:
‘This was the first Sphagnum Splat in Galloway, if not in the world! It worked well – it was successful and grown-ups were having just as much fun as the kids! A site like this is difficult to walk across, and you can get Sphagnum over quite a good area. It is good to do a restoration technique with people not just machines. Anyone can come out and have a bit of fun, and we can talk about the joys of peatbogs.’
Emily Taylor, Sphagnum Splat co-ordinator.
Acknowledgements and thanks to all Participants of Sphagnum Splat, an event led by Crichton Carbon Centre. This event was a marker for the completion of the Peat Culture project supported by the Galloway Glens Landscape Project. Thank you to Jos Smith for permission to refer to unpublished work created in celebration of peat restoration projects in south west England. Any unintended errors are entirely my responsibility.
This show took its lead from different technical activities of peatland survey and restoration. As an artist who wants to support this work, I’m interested in the cultural values of peatland and different ways of understanding them. This has meant looking close-up at bogs, as well as my own preconceptions. Scotland has a good share of peatlands. Their significance is now widely recognised, largely because healthy wetlands are one of the natural solutions for climate mitigation. Politicians are beginning to accept that we are in a climate and ecological crisis, thanks to the detemination of some scientists to communicate what is happening and the activism of groups such as the school strikers in breaking through societal denial. Environmental protection is a cultural as well as political concern; many artists, like myself, are working out what to contribute.
I am drawn to wetlands because I grew up near salt marshes, but peatbogs have a different character. In the uplands I am still always somehow waiting for the saltwater tide to come in. Spending time in peatlands has been a curious process – not necessarily comfortable, with moments of enchantment as well as uncertainty.
Peatbogs are landforms created principally by bog mosses; studying them turns attention to time and connectivity. As air and rainwater pull sphagnum mosses’ crown-shaped heads upwards, the moss stems are collectively pushed down. Over millennia their brief life in the light creates a deep, dark, suspension in water. A quaking peatbog is a sensory memory, archiving varied patterns of life after Ice Age meltwaters left a foundation of boulder-clay.
The following sections describe three groups of work in the exhibition.
Mending the Blanket
This booklet is about erosion and how people are restoring peatlands in remote places.
The booklet began as a series of prints made from peat from a restoration site in Southern Scotland. You can read more about the process here .
This series of prints, drawings and models was inspired by the extraction and return of a peat core at Kirkconnell Flow, a raised bog on the Nith Estuary near Dumfries. In 2016 the core was taken out of the ground during an arts-environment workshop (further information here). A scientific peat core is used as an environmental archive for research; I was able to use this demonstration core for artwork. After the core had been shown in different events, I made prints from each section. In June 2019 I returned each section of the peat core to Kirkconnell Flow with the permission of Scottish Natural Heritage, who manage the reserve.
Kirkconnell Flow is six metres deep. In this lowland area, a scientiifc estimate is that peat accumulates by about one millimetre a year, so each 50 cm section represents about 500 years of growth. When we took the peat core, we put the sections in gutter pipe (on the floor in the photo).
Having got six metres down, it was exciting to find a clear line where the peat ended and a sedimentary layer of boulder clay began. This clay was laid down at the beginning of the Holocene era (perhaps 9000 years ago) and created an impermeable base on which bog mosses grew over the millennia.
Here you can download more information about the Kirkconnell peat core with references to other writings (the booklet in the photo above).
These were made from each section of the Kirkconnell Flow peat core (one section is missing because we were just learning how to use the peat corer).
Here are the prints being made on the Columbian Press in Edinburgh College of Art.
I returned the peat core last June to a small pool on Kirkconnell Flow. Putting the peat in water reduces the oxidation that occurs when it is exposed to air.
I found I wanted to keep the boulder clay. After a bit of dreaming, I used it to model some Holocene figures, using a simple coil technique.
The first form was a dug-out canoe. This referenced a prehistoric artefact in Dumfries Museum that had been preserved in a nearby raised bog.
Being taught to row in the Holocene
I made a concertina bookwork while forming an oar for the canoe. Rolling out the coils evoked childhood memories of learning to model things out of clay, and being taught to row in muddy salty southern estuaries.
Quadrat Drawings: making connections through field drawing
For me, field drawing is always work in progress. It’s about taking time to hone observation, and reflect on where I’m coming from and going to.
With the start of the growing season I began to make square drawings in imitation of a botanical field survey tool called a ‘quadrat’ (see the photo below). I had seen a quadrat being used to count plant species in a Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership workshop. I wanted to learn to see the living layer of peatland as offering different kinds of habitat for sentient and expressive beings.
I began in March at Knowetop Lochs in Galloway, during very wet weather. I was drawing crouched up on the ground. I knew theoretically the plant layer provides space for many varied activities but at first I only saw things – different wet shapes. I trained myself to make more connections and gradually began to use action words to label the drawings. For example, a rubbing of bare peat signalled ‘oxidising’.
As spring progressed, I became absorbed by plant growth. After the leaves came out, I became intrigued by interactions between different species of plants and insects.
The bog makes itself in tiny lively moments, such as when cotton grass seeds catch in willow branches. It was an experience of glimpsing many small carbon sequestrations, a kind of ‘shimmer’.
As I made discoveries about how to look better, I made guidelines for myself which I kept disobeying. I reflected on what was influencing me and began to make more insightful choices of how to interpret what I was seeing.
I saw how scientific plant illustration inspires careful attention to form but can lead to objectification. Other ways of looking, like Paul Klee’s dynamic plant drawings, help see process but can move the images towards abstraction. A painter called David Measures documented momentary glimpses of butterflies – and only drew when he could see the insect. His remarkable attentiveness gave new information about butterfly behaviour. His approach made more and more sense to me as a way of focussing on what is happening in the present moment. As I sensed the huge variety of interactions on a peatbog, I began to get a feel of how, in combination, this liveliness can become a substantial landform – given time.
Death was also present, for example when I looked at a deer skeleton mired in Dunhog Moss by Selkirk.
Pixels are replacing the traditional square survey unit as drone and satellite data makes surveys old-fashioned. Yet my commitment to close-up drawing grew as I saw more of the interconnectedness and minutiae of life on the bog. A distant view misses all this liveliness.
This learning process had emotional edges. By starting to treasure interactions that have evolved over the Holocene, I also realised what is being lost. I found myself wanting to spend time reconstructing patterns from what I had seen, taking time to draw courage from the intricacy of lives lived.
This project is background research for Kate Foster’s project called Peat Cultures, an element of Crichton Carbon Centre’s peatland restoration programme in South West Scotland supported by the Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership. It is part of a body of work submitted for a Masters by Research in Interdisciplinary Creative Practice.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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?
These 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.
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.
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.
Image Elizabeth Tindal
Images above courtesy of Elizabeth Tindal
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.
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.
Further images by Kate Foster / Pantea Armanfar unless otherwise stated.
On the way, I see an emerging Meadow Brown butterfly waiting for sun, in the wet grass.
It’s been raining, and the path is hard to find.
I stop in my tracks: death is in the bog as well as new life. I draw a dead roe deer with sadness and curiousity. Did she get swamped? Or injured on the road?
I am sitting in a willow tree with my toes in water.
Further along the edge of the bog, away from the dark edge of the plantation, the colours lighten.
The reed stems cast shadows. This is a sedge bog, not sphagnum.
The sun brings out damselflies.
And makes the tall grass seeds glisten in the wind.
A dragonfly buzzes by, no time to catch any detail.
I walk back to Hare Moss, under the radio mast. The reeds are at their height and only just in seed.
As these two reed stalks had unfurled, an insect had been ready to knit them together to make a gossamer cocoon.
Later I return after heavy rain to see if it is still there.
Hare and Dunhog Mosses are Scottish Wildlife Trust reserves a couple of miles south of Selkirk, on the A7. Their website describes Hare Moss as having an area of open water that attracts wildfowl throughout the year and Dunhog Moss as an example of an upland basin fen.
International Bog Day is celebrated around the world on the fourth Sunday in July. This annual event has been designed to celebrate the beauty of bogs and to help make people more aware of peatlands, the services they provide for free and the threats they face.
This presentation was given at New Networks for Nature Conference on 17 November, 2018. Please note image credit and collaboration details on the slides.
I’m an independent environmental artist working on a project called Peat Cultures to contribute to a peatland restoration programme in SW Scotland. Things began last summer at the end of the drought, with a workshop to Silver Flowe – a remote raised bog in Galloway that now is within a forestry plantation. This was my suggestion for a ‘postcard from a bog’.
Silver Flowe is described as ‘One of the least interrupted and undisturbed mire systems in Europe’. It is a reference point for restoration work in the area.
This presentation is about working with peat as a material. I will say something about discovering the strange properties of bogs and also mention some earlier explorations of haunting and atmospheric presences of moorlands.
The slide above shows more of the activities on Silver Flowe, including this panorama by another workshop participant. We heard a reading from a Victorian romantic novel about this supposedly bleak and dismal place which is now valued as a Ramsar site, an international designation. We learnt how deep the bog is (see bottom left, the probe stretching into the sky). You need to look close-up to identify bog moss – this sphagnum clump had responded to an earlier fire by growing several heads (shown in my drawing). There was also the tantalising possibility of stepping accidentally into a peat pipe and disappearing into the mire system (bottom right).
Sphagnum does not just live in the bog, but is the bog! Bog moss creates conditions for its own growth, and helps generate a mosaic landscape on a wide scale. Sadly it is now rare to find an undisturbed transition from moorland to native woodland – or to hear the call of waders in summer, that was a quintessential sound of peatland.
Bog moss has a tremendous capacity to absorb water, explaining its various traditional uses. If you drop a dry strand in water you can see its cells fill, as people could do at a group exhibition (called Submerge) that took place in Dumfries during the Paris Climate talks. The flood-prone River Nith burst its banks in the town centre that same week; it was a timely moment to talk about the absorbent qualities of mosses!
This slide shows some sketches made in anticipation of a peat core workshop, using information supplied by the research scientist who gave a demonstration. It’s a tidied-up version of my studio wall. Peat gives a timescale to think with, as moss successively replaces itself. A pollen record is one way a peatbog creates an environmental archive – expressed poetically by Seumas Heaney.
Walking over the bog, we felt it quake – experiencing how the living mossy layer is like a cap over a lens of water. The peat was 6 metres deep, which represents 6 000 years of growth. It’s texture changed as we neared the bottom of the bog – reaching the boulder clay deposited when the last glaciers melted.
This was the first day of a Borderlands network meeting that I co-ordinated, a series of gatherings prompted by New Networks. The next day we went – with the peat core – to Dumfries town centre for a series of talks on Wetlands and Questions of Scale.
These two maps – from SNH and the IUCN – show peatland’s extent. In Scotland, Galloway bog mentioned here are in the deep purple bit in the south west. The world map shows that peat is also concentrated in SE Asia which is preoccupying, because this is where most of the world’s palm oil comes from.
Many agencies, including those who drew up the maps, are now focussing on peatland restoration. These are extracts from presentations at a very busy IUCN Peatland Programme conference last month. They emphasise the value of restored peatland, using the frame of ‘natural capital’ and ‘ecosystem services’ offered.
My concern might be, rather, less tangible, intrinsic values, that can be forgotten or ignored.
As this quote says, current restoration is a reverse of public policy. On the ground, considerable expertise is developing to block drains that were dug in earlier decades.
Despite this public and voluntary effort, peat is still extracted as a commodity, including for horticulture. This site in Midlothian is on the same peatbog as an SSSI and an atmospheric research facility. Continued extraction until 2042 was recently approved – this is on quite a different scale to traditional peat cutting.
Peatland’s role in storing carbon is a strong motive for restoration. The restoration of South Dee is led by Emily Taylor of the Crichton Carbon Centre. The team are very committed to working with different local stakeholders, generating local understanding, and tailoring land use to small scale variation in landscape.
I am one of now many artists whose work concerns peat and peatland restoration. My project aims include profiling existing community culture skills and knowledge, as well developing new artwork during the restoration. The programme is to include an event with another Landscape Partnership presenting and reflecting on art practice.
As the artist Helmut Lemke suggested, the question “why not collaborate?” (rather than why collaborate) should be a guide to practice.
These are anticipatory sketches – altered pamphlets – as I prepare for fieldwork.
So far, I have described efforts to restore peatland’s expansive, fluid and living properties, and suggested some tangible ways of perceiving them.
I will now describe earlier steps on a path to moorlands and peatland. Firstly, Disposition, in 2003, was one of a series of projects which drew out the unique history of zoological specimens. The University of Glasgow Museum label, attached to the skin of this female hen harrier, noted it had been killed in the 1920s in Reay Forest, a large shooting estate now belonging to the Duke of Westminster and formerly the Duke of Sutherland.
With this label as a guide, I travelled with the dead bird and retraced her journey past Macpherson’s former taxidermy shop in Inverness, where the bird had been turned into an ornithological study specimen and placed on a stick.
Going further north to the estate village of Achfary, I went to the point on the map called Reay Forest and found this spruce plantation – territory which would be useless to hen harriers who are ground nesting birds. I was fortunate to meet an estate ‘ghillie’ whose father was head gamekeeper in the 1920s. He was sure that if it had been his father who shot the bird, he would have known about it: there would have been a financial bounty. So what happened? Most likely, he thought, the bird was in passage, and had been shot by a ‘gun’ – a gentleman guest. When the Gun discovered how much taxidermy cost, he must have abandoned his idea of a mounted bird and left his kill in Macphersons taxidermy shop on his way south. From there, the bird was purchased for the new University of Glasgow museum.
Back in the museum, I exhibited this photo.
The bird herself lay on a swatch of Westminster Tweed generously donated by the estate factor. Tweed was, apocryphally, created as a local disguise for the hunting fraternity; you can see what a good camouflage it is for the female specimen. This rather spectral bird held me in a tight grip and her afterlife also inspired work by cultural geographers Merle Patchett and Hayden Lorimer, coining the phrase “hollow eyed harrier”.
This next project (see above) was called Flux Chamber, involving a biogeochemist – Susan Waldron – who is keen for people to learn to see carbon landscapes, and an environmental scholar, David Borthwick. We piloted a guide to help people see carbon ‘in flow and in flux’ between its reservoirs of air, water, and soil when you walk along a peaty upland river. As David wrote:
at a variable rate of exchange
it is stock and commodity
it is hard asset and liquid currency
This page reflects on carbon’s integral part in life – a caddisfly larva as:
a tiny sequestration sealed for instar
– pupation for take off.
I now will reflect on how we have ‘ghost hectares’ – how in the west we consume product of tropical peatlands which are cleared to plant trees for palm oil and pulp. I worked on the Submerge exhibition with Nadiah Rosli, then a Malaysian postgraduate student, who wanted to communicate the impact of illegal burning of tropical forest in Indonesia. The satellite image shows a smoke haze of pollution right across the continent in 2015. Nadiah described her relief to arrive in Scotland – to see blue skies and to breathe deeply. She conveyed a sense of what being part of Generation Haze meant, by showing social media images from her friends and family, experiencing painfully polluted toxic air. Even birdsong stopped. Yet this grotesque new annual season is now normalised. How should we proceed with this awareness?
Given wetlands changing reputation and fortune, it is a challenge to see current, and former wetlands, as places of both life and death. To quote ecocritic Rod Giblett, the challenge is to be ‘To be poetic, but not romanticist, and ecological, but not mechanistic.’