It was very entertaining to hear an advert for peat on commercial radio as I was heading up the track to the Chayne this afternoon. In an amusingly exaggerated Scots brogue, a voice ensured the listener that peat is a cheap, efficient alternative to coal heating, closing with the ringing endorsement: “Ye canna beat a peat heat”, spoken with such hilarious caricature vehemence that it would make Grandpa Broon blush. True enough, it is difficult to “beat a peat heat”, and as I type this blog entry, my feet are warming toastily on a wood-burning stove that is filled to the gunwales with peat. Aside from anything else, the gorgeous smell of peat smoke is a direct slap in the face to any of those damnable air-fresheners, plug-ins and automatic stink bombs which claim to make your house “smell like a home”.
When conditions are suitable, I take a few cuts of peat off the Chayne. This year it was so dry that I was able to cut something like twenty cubic feet of wet peat, leaving it to dry during a summer that was apparently designed to “put a skin on”. As far as I am concerned, this is quite an impressive amount, being far more than I have been able to take off during previous years. There is a real craft and skill to drying peat, and while I haven’t been able to refine it just yet, the majority of my peat was dry enough to burn within about eight or nine weeks of cutting. I’m now slowly working my way through it, mixing it in with sitka spruce, beech and ash to make some fantastic winter fires.
But all this discussion of burning peat is surely sacrilegious? Peat is new cause celebre for conservationists and anti-grouse shooting aficionados, and the very thought of damaging sensitive moorland ecosystems by doing anything so callous as digging for peat should surely be a hanging offence? Read the majority of upland conservation literature at the moment and it obsesses and frets over peat. Conservationists and eco-warriors keenly listen for the slightest trickle of water which will betray the presence of a run-off, then giddily block it with sheets of plastic. There is a huge amount of positive work to re-vegetate, restore and conserve peat in Britain and it would be wrong to criticise the work being put in by estates, NGOs and volunteers, but there is a strange myopia in peat conservation in which shallow peat of less than 50cm depth is totally overlooked altogether. Infact, if you’re dealing with anything less than a full blanket bog, the majority of new guidelines and government incentives scarcely apply.
In 2009, the Scottish Executive published its Rationale for Woodland Expansion which suggested that Scotland can afford to lose 420,000 Ha of unimproved grassland and heather moorland to tree planting. Aside from the national scandal implied by the government’s readiness to destroy such huge extents of heather moorland (specifically 150,000Ha of so called “shrub heath”), the implications for peat in this move would be huge. Nothing threatens peat formation like tree planting, and the Woodland Expansion Advisory Group, having correctly identified 400,000 Ha of “bog” which should not be planted, propose to seal the fate of huge areas of marginal peat ground like that on the Chayne and on countless thousand hectares across the south of Scotland, which are not wet enough to be deep peat but which still contain huge peat deposits.
This is not to resort to the schoolboy’s favourite justification that “it’s not my fault” for digging and burning peat “because everyone else is doing it”. In my mind, it is far better for me to take off a few cubic feet of peat each year for my fire than it would be to plough the whole hill up for commercial woodland and lose it all as it dries up and then trickles down the burn on a wet night. Our society is dependent upon fossil fuels, and it is infinitely preferable to me to use the “fossil fuel” that is on my doorstep, rather than suffer the Carbon expenditure of shipping it halfway across the world as oil, gas or coal. This is never more true than in the smell of diesel which has been shipped from the Middle East being burnt by a forest tractor as it ploughs over, dries out and irreparably damages Scottish peat. If you’re interested in Carbon footprints, there’s a good image.
Somehow, one of the Chayne’s neighbours received approval to plant an area of mixed heather moorland during 2012, and in a single operation the entire moor has been drained and planted at the eventual loss of a hundred acres of peat. This is noteworthy because while the farm is surrounded by 6,000Ha of commercial spruce, the bulk of this planting took place in the 1960s and 1970s, which I can justify to myself as: “they didn’t know any better”. Staggeringly, the same process which was patently shown to be so damaging still continues even today in 2013. Along with this, three sites in Dumfries and Galloway harvest peat on an industrial scale, and this is doubly reprehensible because it is damage wrought entirely for the dispensable vanity of horticultural compost. We continue to destroy the building blocks of healthy moorland every day, and the popular obsession with woodlands being the pinnacle of conservation value will surely lead to the loss of more vital peat resources as successive governments squander money on the vote-winning notion of a forested utopia.