ADVANCES in machinery and innovation in working practices have proved pivotal in restoring a former commercial forestry site in South Lanarkshire to its natural peatland habitat. 

Nearly a decade after work was first started restoring Carnwath Moss, Forestry and Land Scotland (FLS) and its contractors have harnessed modern technology to access and navigate exceptionally boggy ground to finish the job.

The site was planted with lodgepole pine in 1968, and in 2014 many of the trees were removed through a combination of conventional harvesting methods and mulching. However, 14 hectares had to be left at the time due to the extremely wet ground. 

A group of Irish foresters from Coillte visit Gowmoss at Fochabers.A group of Irish foresters from Coillte visit Gowmoss at Fochabers. (Image: Supplied)

In the 10 years since the initial work there has been some recovery with the water table rising, but by leaving some of the trees still standing along with previous modifications like furrows and ridges from the planting process, the peatland habitat has not been able to fully re-establish itself.

FLS peatland restoration forester Neil McLauchlan said: “The restoration of this site has proved to be incredibly challenging, but with more suitable machinery we can now safely access extremely wet areas of land – an essential part of doing peatland restoration work.  

“Our contractor has deployed a brand-new, specially modified excavator to work alongside an existing fleet. The modifications include the fabrication and fitting of a custom undercarriage to allow for extra-widespread tracks that can balance the machine’s weight and reduce the ground pressure for working on the boggy ground.  

“The current plan is to mulch the remaining original trees before using a technique developed by FLS called ‘stump-flipping and ground-smoothing’ on the rest of the area where regeneration has been taking place since the original felling. Any remaining tree stumps and ridges will be pushed into lower furrows to create level ground similar to that found on unmodified peatlands.”

Along with the battle to access the boggy site, FLS teams have worked to protect vulnerable wildlife and neighbouring high-value conservation sites. 

Aerial view of restoration work at Carnwath Moss in South LanarkshireAerial view of restoration work at Carnwath Moss in South Lanarkshire (Image: Supplied)

Neil explained: “Some issues that were addressed in the planning stages were how and when to operate around the discovery of an unusual mineral knoll in the middle of the site that has an active badger sett in it.

“Our environment team come out and surveyed the sett on several occasions and marked out the entrance holes. A buffer zone was put in place, leaving a small area of trees standing for the duration of the project. These will be felled by hand later so as not to disturb the badgers.” 

The restoration work at Carnwath Moss makes up part of the 10,000 hectares of peatland that FLS has set – on land it manages – on the road to recovery through ‘re-wetting’ sites. 

In June, FLS’s north region peatland team played host to a group of foresters and contractors from Ireland on a knowledge-sharing trip.

Coordinated by NatureScot, the visit allowed the group from Coillte, Ireland’s state forest service, to spend time at several FLS peatland restoration sites and discuss issues ranging from the techniques employed to how the work impacts and benefits sensitive habitats. 

Carnwath Mulching in progressCarnwath Mulching in progress (Image: Supplied)

The visit came in the week celebrating World Peatland Day (2 June) and following the Scottish Government’s announcement that the average rate of peatland restoration has more than doubled in the last two years. With more than 100 projects across the country, 2023–24 saw 10,360 hectares restored – the highest amount achieved in a single year.

FLS peatland restoration forester Tim Cockerill, who helped host the visit, said:

“The techniques FLS have pioneered and developed such as ‘stump flipping and ground smoothing’ – which is less invasive and better protects any existing peatland vegetation on our sites, leading to faster recovery – have delivered impressive results at landscape scale here in Scotland. The method would suite the similar peat characteristics, modifications, slopes and hydrology found in Ireland.”