Peat bogs are important for wildlife, climate action and hydrology. In Galloway, as in other parts of the country with high rainfall, peat soils have developed over thousands of years on hillsides and in river valleys. Peatlands are Scotland’s largest terrestrial carbon store and cover one fifth of Scottish land area. Most bogs are degraded, but even so there is many times more carbon held in peat than in all UK forests.
Damaged peatlands in the Galloway area urgently need restoration to keep stored carbon in the ground and to help wildlife and water management. When peatlands are disturbed, carbon is released into the atmosphere but when the bogs are re-wetted, bog mosses and other plants can grow again to protect the carbon store embodied in the peat beneath.
The reasons for peatland restoration are often poorly understood. Peat bogs are usually in remote areas and have long been thought of as unproductive land that should be brought into cultivation. For many people, bogs are unfamiliar landscapes and have negative connotations. In the past, peatlands figured more in social and cultural life. They were often common land, which provided fuel, and could be places of refuge or foraging.
The Scottish Government has recognised their role in mitigating climate change with its restoration programme, Peatland Action. The new policy reverses earlier practices of draining peatlands for grazing, for commercial forestry, or to extract peat (in some areas large scale extraction continues for horticultural use). Subsequent research has highlighted the issues with converting peat bogs for forestry. Much previous conifer planting on deep peatbogs is now regarded as unproductive and to have caused unanticipated problems such as acidification and erosion.
Environmental artist, Kate Foster already wanted to contribute to a progressive forthcoming restoration project. Her previous experience included coordinating a two-day networking event on the theme of wetlands in 2016. In the same year, Crichton Carbon Centre proposed Peatland Connections as part of the Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership (GGLP) programme. Kate submitted a proposal to GGLP, which was selected from among others. As the project took shape it became more embedded in the Crichton Carbon Centre, who already had experience of collaborating with artists.
The eventual aim of Peatland Connections is large-scale restoration work to revert areas of the Galloway Forest Park to peatland. GGLP wants to celebrate the role of peatlands within Galloway’s working landscapes, with an emphasis on local benefits such as water quality, the health of wild fish populations, and resilience against floods and droughts in a changeable climate.
Peat Cultures was envisaged as a companion project and became a pilot for some aspects of Peatland Connections. It comprised a suite of community engagement and artistic activities seeking to engage people to consider peatlands as valuable in their own right as well as of wider significance for climate action and wildlife protection. Its overall aim was to support a range of local stakeholders in their work of restoring degraded areas of peatland for diverse local benefits.
Workshop participants in discussion at a peat bog
Field Workshops that took place in the peatlands themselves were an important strand of Peat Cultures. Kate Foster herself was inspired by an early Galloway Glens workshop held at Beggers Moss, a small island raised bog within forestry plantation. The project developed to support other workshops advertised via websites and social media, giving local residents a chance to experience them first-hand. Emily Taylor, of the Crichton Carbon Centre, had overall responsibility for the substantial task of gaining permission and planning for contingencies of such field trips to remote places. She was also responsible for introducing the issues of sustainable land management into these workshops.
The workshops included visits to Silver Flowe, the best-preserved peat bog in the area. This was initiated by Annan Museum to highlight this internationally recognised site, which is one of the least disturbed mire systems in Europe. The workshops were popular as the area is well known in local imagination but hard to reach without a guide. The event reflected on historical and literary associations, and several participants proposed images for a Silver Flowe postcard.
Kate Foster and Emily Taylor collaborated for a further workshop at Knowetop Lochs (a Scottish Wildlife Reserve) for interested creative practitioners in the locality. This combined scientific and artistic perspectives and encouraged participants to think about peatbogs as places of aesthetic, cultural, and historical interest. Emily Taylor pulled up a column of peat to help conceptualise the depth and dampness of the bog. A peat core manifests thousands of years of peat growth, which forms at a rate of roughly one metre per thousand years. Bogs in Galloway are frequently six metres deep or more. As an object of visual interest, a peat core can also be valued in aesthetic terms. Feedback indicated that this workshop helped generate different senses of connection to the peat bog, giving ideas for creative practice as well as information about the wider significance of peatlands in an era of climate emergency.
Sphagnum Splat was the finale of these field outings, where a group of families, environmentalists and musicians took part in a symbolic, enjoyable and educational event. The aim was to encourage growth of Bog Moss (Sphagnum species) in a peat bog that was already in the process of being restored. The group walked to the area with banners and piloted a satisfying and tactile method of hurling moss-laden peat-balls into the bare patches of the deforested peat bog from the safety of a small dry hillock. A video by Jayne Murdoch is available here.
One of Kate Foster’s booklets, including prints produced using peat
Kate Foster documented ongoing peatland restoration by producing an illustrated booklet, Mending the Blanket. This responded to a visual field guide about assessing peatland condition written by Emily Taylor and colleagues. Kate Foster’s booklet responded to the theme that seeing bare peat is a sign of degraded land and set out to show how a living layer of bog moss has been restored in a site in the Southern Uplands. The drawings for the booklet were made using peat as a print-making material, specifically ‘squagy’ peat from the lowest layer of a bog in restoration. Large scale peat prints provoked a strong aesthetic response, but Kate Foster decided to move away from a fine art approach towards authorial illustration to create A5 booklets which could be made available at low cost. Six key images within the booklet were adopted by Galloway Glens as postcards to raise the profile of peatland restoration at events such as agricultural shows.
Recognising that she was working in a complex multidisciplinary setting, Kate Foster honed skills and knowledge by means of a research degree which contextualised her work as a socially engaged approach within an ecological art practice. This provided insight into the social processes of ecological restoration and a critical consideration of different modes of working. Her practice-based final project, Developing Peat Cultures, can be read as a dissertation.
As an artist, Kate Foster worked to reframe the restoration activities and created new visual languages for communication. A WordPress website included blogposts, information and a resource section. A Twitter account acted as a microblog and helped connect with activity elsewhere. The project and related issues were communicated through presentations and exhibitions, for example by ecoartscotland at the 2018 New Networks for Nature conference, within the University of Edinburgh, and at a Pendle Hill Landscape Partnership symposium, funded, developed and delivered in partnership with In-Situ Arts, in Brierfield, Pendle.
The programme Peatland Connections was delayed due to an external match funding issue. This had the unexpected benefit of allowing a more detailed exploration of collaborative possibilities and learning from other projects. Peat Cultures had strong similarities with Kerry Morrison’s work with Pendle Hill Landscape Partnership and In-Situ (see ‘related projects’ below), and these two artists found a common purpose of embedding ecological artistic practice and research within peat landscape restoration projects. They found they had complementary skills and Kerry Morrison’s experience with socially engaged practice helped shape the project. This was documented in a blogpost.