Sustainability

The problem with peat

Any way you cut it, one of the most important ingredients in whisky making is a fossil fuel – and that’s not even the worst part
By Felipe Schrieberg
RSPB Forsinard Flows, part of the rolling expanse of peatland and wetland in the Scottish Highlands.
RSPB Forsinard Flows, part of the rolling expanse of peatland and wetland in the Scottish Highlands.
For aficionados making the pilgrimage to Islay, the heady aroma of burning peat in a distillery’s kiln is an indispensable factor in the romance and allure of this Hebridean island and legendary whisky capital. Dried-out bogs scarred by trenches – the hallmarks of peat extraction – are common sights across the isle, the legacy of centuries of the fuel’s use for heating homes and smoking malted barley during the whisky-making process. Ask any ‘peathead’ or ‘peat freak’, as those bewitched by smoky flavours in whisky often call themselves, and they’ll say it is always a treat to dig up some peat, as is sometimes done during a tour of one of the island’s distilleries, before waxing lyrical about the nuances of phenolic parts per million, the ‘terroir’ of different regional sources and the breadth of flavours this ancient mossy material imparts to their favourite drams.
The kiln at Laphroaig

Unfortunately, these pleasures come at a cost: peatlands are delicate, non-renewable ecosystems that are seriously damaged by extraction. They also act as a carbon sink, storing three billion tonnes of carbon in the UK alone. The exploitation of peat bog sites therefore releases large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, while simultaneously destroying habitats for rare species. Romance aside, a dug-up peat bank is a sign of significant environmental degradation.

Fortunately, the whisky industry is beginning to reconsider its extraction of peat. Collaborating with conservation NGOs, whisky companies are initiating restoration projects and starting to consider sourcing their peat in a manner which alleviates some of the harmful consequences. Meanwhile, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) is in the process of creating a new Peat Action Plan, due for release later this year, which will help guide whisky companies towards creating a more responsible and sustainable – if such a word can be used to describe fossil fuel extraction – peat supply chain.

If the ongoing policy discussions between the SWA and partner NGOs are successful, the Scotch whisky industry could potentially become a global leader in peatland conservation.

Most whisky fans are already familiar with the basics of peat. In short, it is made of mosses and plants that have decomposed over tens of thousands of years without the presence of oxygen, a result of the waterlogged, acidic conditions in which it slowly develops. When dug up and dried, it becomes combustible. In whisky production, dried peat is used to smoke malting barley, ensuring that the phenols in the smoke are infused into the spirit that emerges from the cask at the end of the whisky-making process.

The United Kingdom contains a lot more peatland than most other countries – around 2.7 million hectares – of which more than half is located in Scotland. However, peatland comes in varied forms and only a small proportion is dug up for industrial use, with horticulture accounting for the majority of annual peat extraction.

The peat in demand from multiple industries is found in areas called lowland raised bogs. These locations are named after the curving domes created by the accumulation of peat, which raise the surface of the bog above groundwater levels and can run more than 15 metres deep. Most other peatland is shallower and located in blanket bogs and fens.

Clifton Bain, programme advisor to the UK Peatland Conservation Programme of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), stresses the uniqueness of these bogs. “Lowland raised bogs often are a very different type of habitat to the blanket bogs,” he explains. “They’re incredibly rare across Europe and what we have in Britain are some of the best examples out there. And the biodiversity they contain is also special.”

Lowland raised bogs cover only 5,800 hectares in the UK, of which 2,500 are in Scotland. The whisky industry extracts approximately 0.03 million cubic metres, says Bain, representing less than 4 per cent of the almost 0.8 million cubic metres of total peat extracted – mostly from this rare source – in 2014, which is the most recent year for which figures have been issued by the UK’s last mineral extraction survey.

However, even a small amount of peat extraction has ugly environmental impacts and years of exploitation has severely reduced the overall condition of the UK’s peatland: 80 per cent of total peatland has been designated as ‘degraded’ by the IUCN. Extraction is one culprit – another is the ‘conversion’ of peatland. This happens mostly through drainage but sometimes via controlled burning for other uses, including agriculture, tree plantations and the creation of heather scrubland that supposedly allows grouse to breed faster and thus provide more targets for eager shooting parties to chase in the moors. Either way, the consequences are alarming.
A hen harrier hunting over a Scottish peat bog

Many rare species, such as the large heath butterfly and the bog bush cricket, are endemic to lowland raised bogs. Considering that 94 per cent of all the UK’s lowland raised bogs have been wiped out over the last 100 years, many of the species found in these areas are now under serious threat.

Peatland ecosystems are especially vulnerable because of their waterlogged nature. As Bain explains, extracting even a small amount of peat can have consequences: “Peatland is over 90 per cent water; they’re incredibly wet systems. If you cut into a bubble of water, you’ve essentially burst the dome and you have an area of impact over a much wider area. So even if it’s a small amount of cubic metres used, the footprint is much larger.”

Peatlands are also an important component of local water cycles. They soak up, filter and release water slowly. Damaged peatland, therefore, can lead to increased risk of flooding while healthy peatland increases resilience. Water that flows down from degraded peatland also needs to have contaminants removed by water companies – which explains why some of these companies are also investing in peatland restoration.

Bain is especially concerned by the source of extracted peat. He likens the exploitation of lowland raised bogs to chopping down the last mahogany trees in a large rainforest. Just 800,000 cubic metres extracted out of 2.7 million hectares of peatlands may not seem like a lot, but when that volume is sourced from just 5,800 hectares of lowland raised bogs, the problem becomes more evidently pressing.

As a large carbon sink, degraded peatland in the UK releases 23 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere each year. In order to meet national net-zero targets, the UK government realises it has to act on the issue. Meeting those goals requires massive restoration efforts, which is why a ban on peat extraction for horticulture, the prime industrial culprit, is also in the works for 2024. Unfortunately, unless other nations take similar steps or demand for horticultural peat declines, the problem is likely to be ‘exported’ to nations with less scrupulous regulations.
Cutting peat

The whisky industry is aware of the issues and has begun to confront the problems caused by peat extraction. Beyond its upcoming action plan, the SWA publicly supports the goals of the IUCN’s Peatland Strategy 2040 and has declared that its members’ future peat activities should deliver environmental net gain.

The exact details of the industry’s planned commitments are still under consideration, although Bain says that policy discussions between the SWA and the IUCN have been good so far: “We hope to work very closely with the SWA. We’ve had initial meetings that have been very positive. We’ve agreed on the principles that are being established.”

According to Morag Garden, the SWA’s head of sustainability and innovation, the organisation is also facilitating education about peatland management: “We’ve already undertaken a report for our members trying to understand current practices and looking at future ideas.” It is hoped that these first steps will lead to improvements across the industry, at all stages of the supply chain.

There are many pieces of the puzzle for decision makers to consider. Choosing the right site is important: rather than pristine areas, those already damaged or degraded are best, and avoid harming wildlife further. Some peatlands are so degraded that they are no longer a priority for wildlife conservation but could still serve for industry uses.
The signs of peat cutting in the landscape of Hoy, Orkney

Bain also hopes for synergies with other infrastructure projects that exploit peatland: “There’s enormous amounts of peat dug up from developments, like wind farms or road construction, that are available for use and more than meet the needs of the whisky industry. How great would it be if you could link this together?”

Responsible peat extraction features three primary aspects. Firstly, drainage. Examine the planned patterns of the drainage ditches, and dig them in a way that creates as little damage as possible to the land from the ensuing loss of water. Special barriers can also be installed that help protect adjacent areas that aren’t being cut but would still be affected.

Secondly, extract carefully and constantly repair the damage. Peatland is primarily restored via re-wetting, which can begin almost immediately after extraction. Attention to where peat is removed also matters, in order to allow the site to retain its native species at least to a degree. Also, taking just a shallow layer of peat across a large site makes it harder for the natural vegetation to recover.
Finally, sites can’t simply be abandoned after extraction is complete. It leaves them degraded, unable to regenerate and emitting carbon dioxide.

An extraction plan must incorporate the site’s recovery by rebuilding its water tables and vegetation. Otherwise, the cost of restoration is much higher, with NGOs or governments footing the bill for the mess made by other, usually commercial, entities.

Unfortunately, all of this is not enough to compensate for the damage to peatland that has been inflicted over thousands of years, but it’s vastly better than doing nothing at all. Both Bain and the SWA believe that the whisky industry can set an example for responsible peatland management – and that to do so represents good business as well. Prioritising peat stewardship will allow the industry to create a progressive and bold new narrative around its practices.

In its strategy, the SWA commits its members to funding the restoration of Scottish peatland more widely. Some whisky companies have already begun to do so, and the signs indicate that further initiatives will be announced in the near future. The IUCN also offers a market mechanism which enables businesses to buy into peat restoration, receiving carbon credit certificates confirming carbon dioxide emission offsets that also help the UK government reach restoration targets.

Garden insists that SWA members hope to make technological advancements as well as to pursue collaborations with NGOs: “There is a lot of really innovative research looking at using peat as efficiently and effectively as possible. There’s also a number of activities at the members’ level where they are engaging in restoration and working in partnership with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).”

The RSPB has indeed been involved with the industry on several projects, including – together with Diageo’s brands – the 2017 restoration of 280 hectares of peatland on Islay as a feature of Lagavulin’s 200th anniversary celebrations. More recently, through Johnnie Walker, Diageo also committed to restoring 88 hectares alongside the RSPB in the Cairngorms National Park at An Lurg.
A red grouse on a Scottish moor

In its 2020 annual report, Edrington – owner of Macallan, Highland Park and Glenrothes, among other brands – stated that its partnership with the RSPB has enabled the continuing conservation of the Hobbister Moor peat extraction site as a bird sanctuary, while also providing peat for Highland Park’s whisky. Under its Famous Grouse brand, the company has donated a total of £680,000 to bird conservation since 2008, which has included the restoration of 67 hectares of peatland.
The kiln at Highland Park

Beyond RSPB partnerships, one new budget-friendly whisky brand, Creag Dhu, sources unpeated Speyside whisky and donates some of the proceeds from its sales towards peatland conservation. So far, though, it is the only brand to do something like this in the Scotch whisky industry, but hopefully others will follow suit.

These are all encouraging examples, but the next step should be that SWA members take a more joined-up, systemic approach to peat exploitation. Responsible extraction of this rare, non-renewable resource will become obligatory, rather than an afterthought, especially once the SWA’s peat action plan is published.

As achieving net-zero carbon emissions becomes a priority for the industry – the SWA has committed to net-zero emissions by 2040 – traditional attitudes and extraction practices will quickly become inviable. The matter takes on further significance when considering the Scottish government’s 2020 commitment to spend £250 million on peatland restoration through to 2030.

The Scotch whisky industry has made a tidy profit off the back of the vulnerable land it exploits. It’s time for distillers to take responsibility for the environmental consequences of peat usage – giving peat freaks yet another reason to revel in the romance of the smoky stuff.

Clarification:


Not all peat used for whisky production is sourced from lowland raised bogs. In general, blanket bogs are much more common than the raised bogs. For example, St Fergus in Aberdeenshire is a true lowland raised bog, but Castlehill on Islay and Hobbister Moor on Orkney are blanket bogs