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18 November 2019

A single wildfire in northern Scotland, that burnt for six days on an internationally important peatland, could have released an amount of carbon into the atmosphere equivalent to six days’ worth of Scotland’s total greenhouse gas emissions, according to a new report released today (Mon 18 Nov). [1]

Analysis for WWF by Ricardo estimates the impact of a wildfire of the scale of the one that took place in May on part of the Flow Country. The Flow Country is under consideration for World Heritage Site status for its globally-rare type of blanket peatland and is estimated to store 400 million tonnes of carbon [2].

The study used an approach based on International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) methods [3] making a low-range estimate of carbon loss at 174,000 tonnes of carbon lost from the peatland into the atmosphere during the fire. This figure is the equivalent of 6.2 days of daily average greenhouse gas emissions in Scotland. The fire burned for almost six days in May 2019, across more than 5,000 hectares. 

The level of climate emissions from peatland wildfires can depend on severity of the fire and prior condition of the peat.  Healthy peatlands in good condition will release around five times less carbon during wildfires, compared to a peat bog that has been drained. More severe fires will leave bare peat, damaging the ability of peatlands to take carbon out the atmosphere, and requiring restoration to return the peatland more quickly to good health. The desk-based study provides estimates of the impacts, using conservative scenarios for these factors. A more in-depth study, using expert fieldwork, has been launched by scientists at the University of the Highlands and Islands and will examine how different styles of land management have affected the impact of the fire. [4]

The analysis identifies the key impacts of this wildfire are likely to be the directly emitted greenhouse gas emissions and the cost of the emergency response and volunteer hours taken to fight the fire.

As climate change is increasing the frequency of these types of wildfires in the UK, WWF Scotland is calling for urgent action to protect and restore these vital carbon stores [5], including increased, multi-year funding from the Scottish Government, of at least £20m per year [6]. 

Gina Hanrahan, Head of Policy for WWF Scotland said:

“We’re facing twin climate and nature crises. People and nature in the UK are already feeling the impacts of climate change, and we have little time left to act if we are to avoid its worst effects. This analysis puts into stark figures the importance of our peatlands and the huge cost to climate and nature when something goes wrong. Reports suggest that the vegetation is recovering well, at least in some areas, and we’ve had a lucky escape – this fire could have been even more damaging for our atmosphere.

“How we manage and care for our peatlands influences their effect on climate change, as well as fire risk and how the habitat responds, so protecting and restoring peatlands needs to be a vital part of our response to both the climate and nature crises. That’s why we need to see increased, long-term funding for peatland restoration in the next Scottish Government budget.”

Emma Goodyer, Manager of IUCN UK Peatland Programme said:

“There have been a number of peatland wildfires across the UK this year which have resulted in damage to habitat, carbon emissions and potential human health concerns from the resulting air pollution.

“Healthy peatlands are more resilient to fire. A great deal of peatland restoration work is being undertaken across the UK already with at least 150 projects carried out in Scotland. However, we need to increase the scale of funding available for peatland restoration if we are to urgently respond to the climate crisis and to increase the resilience of our peatlands.”

Bruce Farquharson, Scottish Fire and Rescue Service Area Manager and chair of the Scottish Wildfire Forum said:

“As an organisation, we have been proactive in dealing with the potential impact of climate change. We have put in in place a strategy of training, prediction, public communication and targeted resourcing to deal with future demands. As a country, there’s no doubt that if we experience dryer, colder winters and increasingly warm summers, that this can impact on the scale and intensity of wildfire.

“It is for that reason we are working with key stakeholders and land managers in rural communities to form integrated partnerships to prevent wildfire starting and to protect communities when they do. Sadly, we have seen already this year the devastating impact wildfire can have on communities, wildlife, land and livestock. Many rural and remote communities are hugely impacted by these incidents, which can cause significant environmental and economic damage.”

Local resident Alex Patience said:

“The fire was of huge concern within the local community, for those fighting it, but also for the wildlife living on the peatlands.  Firefighters were on site for days and days, and the main road was closed during that time causing major upheaval for residents.

“I think it’s important to recognise that although our lives were disrupted, sadly the local wildlife has taken much longer to recover.  For example I only started to see small birds returning to my garden in mid-October, months after the fire. 

“This fire made clear that we are living under the false pretence in Scotland that we are safe from such disasters, but we really aren’t.  These fires spread really quickly and can be a serious threat.”

Dr Jeremy Wiltshire, Knowledge Leader at Ricardo and an author of the report for WWF said:

“Greenhouse gas emissions from wildfires on peatland can be large and have significant variation depending on fire severity. Drainage of peat can influence fire severity, indicating an urgent need to restore drained peatland to its former condition.”

Notes to Editors

[1] ‘Carbon loss and economic impacts of a peatland wildfire in north-east Sutherland’, Ricardo Energy and Environment for WWF-UK

[2] Information on the Flow Country World Heritage Site application process:

[3] The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change.

The study applied methods in the IPCC’s wetlands supplement to estimate the emissions of carbon and methane from the north Sutherland fire.

A range of potential estimated emissions were identified for a fire of this size, from 174,000 tonnes up to 294,000 tonnes of carbon under the IPCC methodology, depending on the severity of the fire and other conditions. However, on-the-ground reports suggest that the fire is likely to have been of low severity across much of the burned area, suggesting that carbon loss may have been at the low end of this range. For this reason we are emphasising the low-range estimate figure in our reporting of this study.

[4] The Fire Blanket project is being undertaken by researchers from the Environmental Research Institute at the University of the Highlands and Islands.

[5] Additional facts and figures on peatlands in the UK:

Blanket bogs are an important natural solution to climate change, and 13% of the world’s blanket bogs are found in the UK according to the IUCN Peatland Programme.

Peatlands represent the single most important terrestrial carbon store in the UK. They store at least 3.2 billion tonnes of carbon - approximately twenty times that of UK forests. Scotland holds around half of the UK’s peatland carbon. This store can only be maintained if peatlands remain wet, or are rewetted where they have dried out.

Blanket and raised bog peatlands cover around 23,000 km2 or almost 10% of the UK. However, fewer than 20% of the UK’s peatlands are undamaged. The remaining peatlands are eroded, modified or destroyed through extraction or conversion to other land uses. Even the best protected sites (under EU wildlife legislation) have suffered, with fewer than 50% in a favourable condition

[6] The Scottish Government’s Programme for Government commits to spending £14million in the current year on peatland restoration. Work for WWF by Vivid Economics suggests that this may be enough to restore up to approximately 17,000 hectares, based on historic costs in the Peatland Action Scheme. WWF Scotland is therefore calling for the budget to be increased, to close the gap to the 20,000 hectares per year restoration target that is needed for a net-zero climate emissions pathway; to reduce the ongoing emissions occurring from degraded peatlands; and to reflect the nature emergency that is also facing our planet by restoring an important Scottish habitat.