Dr Ainoa Pravia examines the research being done into how peatlands could be key to helping combat climate change Restoration, peatbogs, entomology, terrestrial arthropods, biodiversity, flow country, scotland.
The north of Scotland hosts the largest expanse of blanket bog in Europe, the Flow Country. This naturally treeless landscape was largely damaged by afforestation in the twentieth century via drainage, furrowing of deep peat and planting of fast-growing conifers. Many of those crops, especially those set on deep peat, failed to establish, and further research into peatland ecology has shown that these type of plantations are unlikely to yield commercially viable timber crops.
It has also shown that undisturbed peatlands have a remarkable potential for carbon storage and sequestration, and considering their vast extensive cover in the world, they could help mitigate climate change in the future.
Restoration efforts began in 1994 in Forsinard, an old estate in the heart of the Flow Country purchased by RSPB, as part of a LIFE (EU) project. A Peatland Partnership was created to continue with this work forward, leading research into restoration, monitoring and management techniques, and culminated in the Flows for the Future project between 2014 and 2019.
The University of the Highlands and Islands was closely involved in the restoration, with the Flow Country Research hub coordinated by Dr Roxane Andersen, based at the Environmental Research Institute (ERI) in Thurso and one of my PhD supervisors alongside Kenneth Body (ERI), Rebekka Artz and Nick Littlewood at the James Hutton Institute.
Although my project was originally conceived to look at trade-offs between ecosystem services, I quickly realised that peatland arthropods had been fairly overlooked in peatland research and my focus shifted to their response to the variety of restoration management techniques that had been applied in Forsinard over the past decades.
We assessed the effectiveness of restoration by looking at the restoration trajectory of arthropod assemblages, mainly carabid and moth groups, in a chronosequence of formerly afforested blanket bog under restoration management that had been felled at different points in time. We also looked at the effect of more direct habitat management and the handling of brash material, which nowadays tend to be removed from felled sites and used as biofuel.
In trying to look at the associations between arthropods and habitat more in depth, we used species functional traits to further investigate what environmental and biological factors would be key for these groups during restoration. Lastly, we looked at potential biondicators of restoration progress to be used in restoration monitoring, which tends to be an area of peatland management less emphasised than restoration itself.
The results of this research showed that typical arthropod bog assemblages are yet to be achieved due to persistence of generalists, as well as absence of bog specialists. This is not surprising as the degradation of a habitat generally leads to loss of specialised species when recolonisation sources are lost. Typical bog arthropod assemblages largely rely on habitat microstructure, particularly Sphagnum mosses, and associated microclimates for survival.
Management can provide temporary refuge for arthropods, but the re-establishment of peat-forming vegetation and water table depth is essential for the return of typical bog assemblages. Due to habitat specificity and fidelity, arthropods can be useful bioindicators of restoration progress.
Overall, legacy and edge effects associated with the restoration process likely affected assemblage recovery and further research into biodiversity assemblages in conjunction with other peatland research needs to be continued to fully understand their response to restoration.