Library of Creative Sustainability

Inspiring examples of sustainability outcomes achieved through artistic collaboration. Read our introduction here

Peat Cultures

In the context of climate disruption, the ecological value of peatlands is being reappraised. Initiated by environmental artist Kate Foster, Peat Cultures supported the physical restoration of peatlands by drawing attention to the roles they play in a living cultural heritage. It was a minimal low budget pilot project for the scheme Peatland Connections, which seeks to restore peatlands in Galloway and emphasise local benefits and community engagement.

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Project Description

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.

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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.

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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.

Partners & Stakeholders

  • The Crichton Carbon Centre is an environmental not-for-profit organisation with a strong scholarship base, whose mission is to turn research into action. The Carbon Centre works actively with communities and individuals on a range of projects from its base at Kirkgunzeon in Galloway. Dr Emily Taylor is the General Manager and a specialist in sustainable land management. As a peatland expert, Emily Taylor also leads a training programme in restoration methods for a Scottish government initiative, Peatland Action. Various regional peatland restoration projects are already in progress and are managed from the Carbon Centre.
  • Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership Scheme (GGLP) came about from a wish to better understand and manage the unique natural, cultural and built heritage of the area in order to support sustainable rural communities. The Partnership supports a series of locally initiated projects to connect the people living and working in the area with its heritage and landscape. Dumfries & Galloway Council are the lead partner of a wide range of organisations, including The Galloway & Southern Ayrshire Biosphere, Forestry Commission Scotland, and Historic Environment Scotland. Helen Keron, GGLP Education and Community Engagement Officer was the GGLP key contact for Peat Cultures.
  • Kate Foster is an environmental artist with an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach whose work engages with environmental issues. Since 2016 she has focused on wetlands. This project arose from her commitment to contribute to a progressive ecological restoration programme and has consolidated her long-term engagement with the complex issues of rural land use. More information about her role is available on her project blog.
With creative thinking and artistic vision, even a difficult and removed subject like Peat Bogs can be brought further into the public consciousness. This communication of technical subjects in an accessible and interesting way through collaboration of scientists and artists is a model that we hope to pursue further. Helen Keron, Galloway Glens Education and Community Engagement Officer

Sustainability Issues

Peat Cultures:

  • piloted ways to awaken community interest in peat bog protection, as carbon sinks and as an important habitat within an area of intensive forestry plantation.
  • demonstrated how interlinked cultural and natural heritage are: peatlands are not just a resource for humans to exploit, nor are they a wilderness without human history.
  • profiled local knowledge, expertise and activities, seeking ways to help disseminate these. This included non-scientific ways of getting to know peatlands and appreciated tacit and everyday experience.
  • experimented in communicating issues that are hard to visualise and which occur in remote places, such as how different land uses release different levels of carbon into the atmosphere.
  • supported a specifically nature-based, low-tech solution for addressing the causes and impacts of climate change

Lessons, Tips & Advice

  • Widening people’s engagement with complex issues in rural areas and extending connections to people who rarely visit peatlands is a priority. An interdisciplinary collaborative approach can help address this.
  • Artists can contribute by working within a team and wider network. For an artist, collaboration requires being prepared to complement what the team is already doing and use this as a starting point to offer creative practice, working as a facilitator as much as an individual artist.
  • Perception of relevance to local communities is helped by taking on board a variety of perspectives and being prepared to negotiate and tailor activities accordingly.
  • High quality outcomes in interdisciplinary and collaborative work take commitment, time, and thought. Each party involved needs resources to do this.
  • Working in remote rural areas needs additional preparation and contingency planning, for example first aid and transport.
  • Socially engaged art practice demands specific skills and ongoing discussion about the aims and quality of engagement. Articulating an ethical environmental policy and an ethical code of practice for participation is important for this.
  • Artists may find that developing relevant skills for such embedded practice requires significant personal investment.

‘What have I learnt through working with Peat Cultures? Don’t plan on a pre-defined outcome! This goes against the normal way we have to apply for funding. But the joy of working with artists is you learn as things go along, and can’t anticipate the connections that will happen.’

Emily Taylor, General Manager, Crichton Carbon Centre

Funding

Kate Foster made the difficult choice to commence Peat Cultures by volunteering her time (accounted at professional rates) to act as match-funding, thus subsidising the project through her own resources. Further in-kind support and direct expenses were offered by Crichton Carbon Centre and Galloway Glens respectively.

The Galloway Glens Landscape Partnership contributed £2,800 alongside in-kind contributions of 56 days of Kate Foster’s time and 24 days of Emily Taylor’s time.

If in-kind time was calculated at the accepted professional day rate of £350 per day the project represents a total in kind contribution of £28,000. This figure gives a truer reflection of the value of time and expertise this project required and was used as a baseline for developing Peatland Connections and budgeting for paid artists time.

Match funding was secured for Peatland Connections in 2019, allowing this project to commence in 2020.

Related Projects

Quotations

This project shows how much time it takes for an artist to learn about an environmental topic and build up working relationships. It’s important to find ways to fund and support artists to do this, as it makes for more authentic eco-artwork. Kerry Morrison, Environment Art Practitioner
Spending time in peatlands has been a curious process – not necessarily comfortable, with moments of enchantment as well as uncertainty. Spending time in a bog, I could see how it makes itself in tiny lively moments, such as when cotton grass seeds catch in willow branches. This was an experience of glimpsing many small carbon sequestrations, a kind of ‘shimmer’. Kate Foster, Environmental Artist
It’s about culture too: what do local people want to see happening? It’s important to make connections between people in the area and how the local countryside is managed – to help make landscape decisions at local scale. Working with artists opens up different ways of communicating. Peatland restoration in general has to learn how to communicate why public money is being put into restoration. Workshop participant

All images courtesy of Kate Foster

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