A decision to allow the extraction of tens of thousands of tonnes of peat every year from a site in the Highlands has been labelled “incredibly disappointing” by environmental groups.

Highland Council gave the go-ahead in November 2019 to a planning application for the removal of 10,000-20,000 tonnes of peat annually at Moy Moss, near Inverness.

The application, which would allow peat mining to take place for ten years, was made by Brian MacGregor and Sons, a company which supplies peat for use in horticulture and malt production across the UK.

Peatlands play an important role in fighting climate change because they have the ability to store large amounts of carbon dioxide, the gas most responsible for global warming.

Globally peatlands store more than twice the carbon stored in all the world’s forests, despite covering just three per cent of the world’s surface. However, when peatlands are mined to provide compost or fuel, they release the carbon they hold into the atmosphere, contributing to rising temperatures.

In February the Scottish Government announced that it would be spending £20 million on restoring peatland this year, and committed to invest £250 million in restoration over the next ten years.

Public finance minister Kate Forbes highlighted “funding for peatland restoration” as one of the key ways in which the budget would “help us deliver the transformation we need across society to transition to net-zero.”

Scottish and UK governments have no records on commercial peat digging

However, environmental groups pointed out that spending millions on peatland restoration while allowing commercial extraction to continue was “farcical” and “makes no sense.”

“Scotland’s peatlands are not only home to some very special flora and fauna, but are recognised as one of the most effective ecosystems in the world for carbon sequestration,” said Alistair Whyte, head of Plantlife Scotland.

“The discovery that the Highland Council has given new planning permission for 10-20,000 tonnes of peat to be extracted annually over a 10-year period from a site near Inverness renders government policy farcical.”

Whyte called for “an outright ban on new commercial peat extraction,” and highlighted the need to act before Glasgow hosts a major United Nations climate summit in November.

He added: “With the UN COP26 climate change summit being hosted in Scotland this year, one can only hope we get our house – and actions on climate change – in order before the eyes of the world are upon us.”

Bruce Wilson, public affairs manager at the Scottish Wildlife Trust, argued that Scotland’s peatlands had immense value as carbon stores and for providing clean water and homes for wildlife. “These benefits far outweigh any possible financial value gained from continued industrial exploitation,” he said.

“Continuing to extract peat for horticulture is totally at odds with addressing the climate emergency and the Scottish Government’s commitments to funding long-term peatland restoration.”

Wilson added. “It makes no sense to spend £250 million on peatland restoration to help meet climate and biodiversity goals while allowing this archaic practice to continue, particularly when alternatives to peat compost are readily available.”

The Scottish Wildlife Trust called Highland Council’s decision “incredibly disappointing…especially as large-scale extraction at the site has the potential to cause further damage to surrounding areas of peatland.”

Continuing to extract peat for horticulture is totally at odds with addressing the climate emergency. Bruce Wilson, Scottish Wildlife Trust

Councillor Jimmy Gray, the chair of the Highland Council planning committee which gave peat extraction the go-ahead, stressed that making planning decisions was a question of balance. He pointed out that neither of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency nor Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH) had objected.

He said: “The decision to support the application was influenced by the ability to regularise a previously consented operation and allowed us to secure peatland restoration on areas of the site which had previously been worked. In addition the conditions, backed up by a financial guarantee, secure restoration of the site as a whole in due course.

“Subject to the application of conditions to secure restoration of the site there were no objections from statutory consultees. SNH consider the site to be of  low conservation value.”

Brian MacGregor, the director of the family company carrying out the extraction, describing criticisms from environmental groups as misinformed. “I supply the Scottish malt whisky industry and enough peat each week to grow 500 tonnes of UK mushrooms each week – there is no alternative substance that is available for both industries.,” he said.

“This is not a new development at all. It is simply a renewal of a permit that was granted by Highland Council 39 years ago. The ecology of our peat bog was destroyed when the Victorians struck the great new Highland railway line along the west side of the bog, causing hot cinders from steam engines to ignite the bog area in times of drought.”

MacGregor added: “The last great fire was in 1955 when a fire was fought on a seven mile front by the army and it lasted for three weeks, spreading into Nairnshire. Aircraft at Dalcross had to use fog landing gear, so intense was the smoke.

“Our product carries ‘no conservation conflict’. Some years ago we won a national marketing award for our work in challenging over zealous conservationists.”

Photo thanks to iStock/Dawid Kalisinski Photography.

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