Superhero peat bogs – all you need to know

Dr James Fenton on the Moss of Achnacree

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All you ever need to know about planet-saving peat bogs has been captured in a new two-volume book by Seil’s Dr James Fenton.

With the help of several hundreds of photographs and full-colour diagrams, An Illustrated Book of Peat makes for timely and essential reading for anyone concerned about climate change, land management and those wanting to find out more about the Scottish landscape generally, said leading ecologist Dr Fenton.

Until now there has been no easily accessible book which explains why and how peat forms in the first place, how bogs develop over time and how they play an important role in locking-up carbon and mitigating global warming, he said.

‘There’s so much going on with peat, you could write a whole book about it – and I did,’ he said.

Peat bogs are abundant in Scotland, so the country has an international responsibility to protect its bogs to stop them releasing their stored carbon to the air, added Dr Fenton whose first job in the early 1970s was as a research scientist in the Antarctic where he studied 5,000 year old peat, photographs of which are in the book.

Dr Fenton was the National Trust for Scotland’s first ecologist and before that chief executive of the Falklands Conservation Team mainly concerned with the territory’s wildlife including its penguins but ‘took the opportunity’ while he was there to observe the islands’ peat bogs.

He describes the book as his ‘Magnum Opus’, his career’s greatest work – so far.

New theories are introduced to the public in the 200-page book. Why are some peat bogs patterned? Some form pools on top, some are wrinkly, some are a rich species and home to nesting birds. There are lots of interesting features to talk about.

Over time peat has had – and still has – many uses. Traditionally peat has been cut and stacked as fuel but that has brought a heavy cost. Inhabitants on Mingulay in the Outer Hebrides, where it was dug on an almost industrial scale and shipped out, eventually had to leave their home shores after it was all cut away.

Digging up and disturbing peat bogs is not good for the climate change everyone is talking about because it releases all the carbon it has been soaking up.

There has long been a campaign to stop gardeners from using it, yet there are still places that produce peat for growing mushrooms. It can still be found in garden centres and on Islay peat is still cut for certain types of whisky.

‘Strictly speaking, if you cut peat for whisky you are damaging the climate but I rather enjoy peaty whisky so I won’t be giving it up,’ said Dr Fenton.

The most famous peatlands in Scotland are in the Flow Country of Sutherland and Caithness, but bogs are also common in Argyll.

Just east of Oban Airport is the Moss of Achnacree, the largest peat bog characteristic of the area between North Connel and Eriska.

With a long history, including once being the source of peat for Oban Distillery, the north west section of the Moss of Achnacree is owned by Max Bonniwell who has recently been restoring the bog to more natural conditions by removing invasive Rhododendron, filling in drainage ditches and re-introducing sheep grazing to help prevent trees taking over which can dry it out.

Max Bonniewell is restoring the pet bogs on the Moss of Achnacree, east of Oban Airport.
Restoration work on the Moss of Achnacree.

Mr Bonniwell’s work restoring it to more pristine conditions has been helped by a grant from NatureScot, formerly Scottish Natural Heritage.

An Illustrated Book of Peat is available from the Natural History Book Service ( for £19.99. A grant from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society helped subsidise the book’s publication.

Caption: Dr James Fenton on the Moss of Achnacree.
NO_T14_James Fenton on the Moss of Achnacree.