Peat Cultures at New Networks for Nature, November 2018


This presentation was given at New Networks for Nature Conference on 17 November, 2018. Please note image credit and collaboration details on the slides.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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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:

carbon moves

at a variable rate of exchange

it is stock and commodity

it is hard asset and liquid currency

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This page reflects on carbon’s integral part in life – a caddisfly larva as:

a tiny sequestration sealed for instar

– pupation for take off.

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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?

NNN kf FINAL.020Given 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.’


Dutch peat cultures

This blogpost is compiled by Kate Foster, incorporating information from Dr. Roy van Beek (Home Turf Project, Wageningen University) and Martin Versteeg (Scheepsvaart Museum in Amsterdam).

This is an introduction to Dutch peat cultures with suggestions of places to visit.

As mentioned in the last post, a Dutch workforce introduced a system of drains and rows to Southern Scotland, using new kinds of hand tools. This industrialised approach was a response to rising demand for peat in Scotland, including as litter for horses working in the cities. André Berry (a speaker from Natural England) described this at Annan Museum, in his overview of the long history of peat use in Britain and the changing technologies of peat extraction.

I was intrigued by this Dutch reference. I often visit the Netherlands but have never been introduced to its peat cultures. I have much to learn! Extensive raised bogs developed across the Netherlands, Belgium and Germany in the Holocene, just as they did in Scotland.

Earlier this month I was pleased to meet members of the Home Turf Project – a new interdisciplinary project at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.  This five-year project will offer ‘an integrated approach to the long-term development, cultural connections and heritage management of Dutch raised bogs.’ Dr. Roy van Beek is leading different studies on how bog landscapes can be followed through time, and how these patterns relate to human activity, focusing on the ‘upland’ parts of eastern Netherlands and neighbouring countries.

“The large majority of Dutch bogs (over 90%) has already disappeared due to peat-cutting and reclamations, and the remainder is under major threat from climate change, agriculture, desiccation and pollution. Therefore we aim to design proactive strategies for the sustainable management of bog-related cultural remains.”

Ref: (Accessed 19.7.2018)

Historically, there were two main Dutch peat cutting areas. In the northeast,  hoogveen, or “high peat” (similar to rasied bog or mire) was extracted. In the western and cetnral areas the Dutch also cut laagveen – or “low peat” – which lay under the water level. This could be called fen in English. In Dutch this kind of land is known as the veenweidegebied.

My ideas for a future Peat Cultures tour of the eastern “high peat” grew with the help of the Home Turf team. Furthermore, Martin Versteeg (librarian at the Scheepsvaart Museum in Amsterdam), kindly provided information about the maritime history of “low peat” extraction in the west of the country.

The Dutch word for peat is veen, and many place-names bear witness to its historic presence.

The Bourtangerveen was an extensive area straddling the north-eastern Dutch province of Drenthe and Lower Saxony in Germany. It was originally perhaps 3000 km square; now 140 km2 have been restored to form a trans-boundary nature reserve called the Bargerveen.  Restored landscape can also be seen at a reserve at Fochteloerveen (of interest to birders too). You can also see peatlands in the Belgian Hautes Fagnes . The Veenpark museum features historical methods of peat extraction.

Peat was used for fuel and construction. Extraction has stopped in the Netherlands but memories and traces of peat digging and peat culture survive. When I started asking about peat, in-laws and friends told various stories. One grandfather had to travel away from home to dig peat for a wage when the farm income was low. Other family members had been involved in the trade in peat. The poverty, and also the radical politics surrounding peat-digging in the nineteenth century, was remembered. This is shown in a recent musical inspired by a book by Suzanna Jansen based on her family history; the title translates as ‘Pauper’s Paradise’ and is set in a Benevolent Society colony (that later served as a prison).

To travel further back in time, the Drenthe museum in Assen has a collection of prehistoric artefacts as well as bog-bodies, of whom the Yde Girl is the most famous. The Emsland Moor Museum in Germany is another place for peatland historians to visit.

Laagveen was extracted by being dredged, until the invention of mechanical peat cutters.

Image of mechanical peat cutter courtesy of Martin Versteeg / Vinkeveen Museum

The following quote shows that even with the new machines, much labour went into extracting low peat:


 “These machines cut large quantities of peat along the logger using a sort of cage with a sharp bottom end that was pushed a few meters deep into the peat and hoisted, full of peat, and dumped into the ship where it was mixed with water to swallow. Subsequently, it was poured onto the layers through the drain pipe between mounted partitions. There the peat slice was dried and then crushed by peat-workers with flat wooden shoes and sticks for both hands to prevent falling into the peat, then cut and put on piles to dry further. The low peat had a fixed size of about 150x60x60 mm.
The dried peat pieces were transported into a ship with the aid of wicker baskets and transported to the buyers; peat was called brown gold at that time, similar to the current oil.”

Martin Versteeg, Scheepsvaart Museum, Amsterdam.

The last peat cutter will in due course be redisplayed at Veenmuseum Vinkeveen (the museum is currently relocating). The image below, from the 1740s, shows the older dredging technique.

Photo credit: Martin Versteeg, of a painting by  J.G. Philips,  1741, Vinkeveen Museum.

The turf was transported by boat which, according to the image below, could also be an arduous process.

Photo credit: Martin Versteeg, of an image in Scheepsvaartmuseum Sneek.

Maritime history for the peat industry can be found at the Scheepvaartmuseum Sneek in the northern province of Friesland. In Amsterdam you can walk by boats moored next to the Scheepsvaartmuseum several of which were involved in transporting peat.

Photo of the bows of the klipperaak “Anna” moored in Amsterdam and built in 1911, used mainly to transport peat from Zwartsluis and Kampen.
Photo of the stevenaak “Maria” moored in Amsterdam and built in 1879 and used in the Zwolle area to transport mainly peat between 1925 and 1958.

You can also access the resource of

And how have contemporary artists responded? One project took place in 2003; an international group of artists were commissioned to respond to the Dutch peat landscape, with the project PeatPolis documented here.

André Berry also made the point that as we look at the landscape now, it is hard to conceive just how expansive peatlands were prior to industrialised reclamation and extraction. Learning about some of the techniques used is one way to help imagine what has been removed from the landscape.

I am solely responsible for any inadvertent errors in this blogpost; please feel welcome to leave a comment or contact me by email.

Kate Foster








Eco/art/scot/land blogpost: Engaging with peatland restoration – Embedded Art practices within Landscape Partnerships

Eco/art/scot/land is a resource focused on art and ecology for artists, curators, critics, commissioners as well as scientists and policy makers. The website has recently published an article by Kerry Morrison and myself (Kate Foster) inviting people to ‘watch this space’ for our involvement in restoration work on blanket peatland and raised bogs. This work will be carried out by three Landscape Partnerships in Southern Scotland and Northern England that have been recently funded by the Heritage Lottery Landscape Partnership Fund. Collaborative contacts between the project officers and project artists were launched with a ‘Great Peat Meet’ in Galloway in November 2017. The article gives details of the art projects’ background and proposed activities.

Here is a link to the blogpost: article


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