While very little of the peat extracted annually is for whisky, the industry is caught up in the government’s efforts to restore Scotland’s peatlands. Charlie Parker explains latest developments in an article on The Times website.
Green plans for saving peat are risky to whisky
The Scottish whisky industry faces a critical shortage of its most important ingredient because of regulations preventing the extraction of peat, a bog owner has warned.
Peat is burnt and barley infused with its smoke during the malting process to create the distinctive flavour that has made Scotch famous across the globe. But the Scottish government has a target to restore 40 per cent of Scotland’s peatland by 2030 as part of its drive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Neil Godsman runs the Northern Peat and Moss Company, which supplies two-thirds of Scotland’s malting operations with 3,500 tonnes of turf every year. His 300-acre peat bog at St Fergus, near Peterhead, will be fully excavated in the next decade, posing a problem for Scotland’s leading whisky brands.
Mr Godsman said the sector urgently needed to find new sources of peat, which takes thousands of years to form through the partial decomposition of organic and vegetable matter in wet acidic conditions.
He argues that it is “impossible” to secure planning permission to extract turf on new bogs because of blocks by Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), the natural heritage watchdog.
Mr Godsman’s wetland stretches across 700 acres, but he is restricted from harvesting 300 acres of it because it is protected as a nature reserve.
“I got one peat bog 20 years ago but SNH put a Special Site of Scientific Interest (SSSI) notice on it,” he said. “It means you’re not allowed to do anything with it. In ten years’ time we’ll have a job getting peat. I’m one of two producers for malting. If my bog is cut away I don’t know where they go for any more. I cut about two thirds of the peat used in Scotland. I don’t know where they’ll go for their peat.”
After peat is sent to maltings operations around Scotland, the smoke-infused barley is distributed to whisky distilleries. Mr Godsman sends his harvests to Glen Ord Maltings, which provides malted grain for brands including Talisker, and the Buckie-based Portgordon Maltings.
The other third of the Scottish peat used for whisky comes from Diageo’s Port Ellen Maltings, in Islay, which supplies peated malt to a number of island distilleries.
Mr Godsman said: “There has to be some change in legislation. It’s ridiculous the way it’s going at the moment.
“The whisky industry will suffer. We want Scottish peat to make Scottish whisky. We’re only looking for about 300 acres out of about 300,000 acres, so it’s nothing at all.”
SNH launched Peatland Action, an initiative funded by the Scottish government to restore damaged peatlands, in 2012. It aims to restore 250,000 hectares (618,000 acres) of peatland by 2030. So far 19,000 hectares are said to have benefited from the scheme following an investment of more than £20 million. A further £14 million has been allocated for this financial year.
Dr Andrew Coupar, SNH’s habitats group manager, said: “Although Scotland has some amazing areas of peatland, and is restoring damaged peatlands on an impressive scale, we still have large areas in relatively poor condition.
“Some of this is due to peat extraction, although only a small proportion of that is attributable to the whisky industry.
“Most of the peat that is extracted is used in horticulture. Numerous alternatives to peat as a growing medium are available and we would encourage members of the public to use these.”
The Scottish Whisky Association, the industry trade body, is expected to unveil a new “peat action plan” later this year. It aims to put “sustainability” at the heart of the industry and make the use of peat more efficient.