When he was five years old, Richard Lindsay disappeared. Having scoured the house, his mother found him in the garden, sitting under a cotoneaster bush and observing the wing structure of a blackbird.
As a child, the renowned peat expert was more interested in birds than plants or conservation. He even had a pet pigeon that hatched an egg under his bed. At school in Liverpool his classmates called him ‘Nature Boy’ and his biology master sent him on a young scientists’ research programme that was to shape his life. “It involved a trip to the Shetland Islands, which I thought were in the Antarctic and sounded pretty interesting.” In fact, Richard was sent to Foula, a peat-covered island over 100 miles north of mainland Scotland. “That trip really ignited my interest. I helped cut peat for the islanders’ fires and to this day the smell of burning peat is tremendously evocative.”
He went on to study biological sciences at the University of East Anglia, specialising in ecology and conservation, and graduated in 1975. “I went back to Liverpool in search of casual work and a Mr Wilson at the employment exchange suggested I become a conservation ranger. Neither of us really knew what it involved. I was part of a group sent to the Lake District National Park to learn dry-stone walling, forestry and the like, but when the organisers noticed I had a degree in conservation they set me to work at the Nature Conservancy Council [NCC].”
The remit of this government agency was to designate and manage national nature reserves and Richard was dispatched to survey the Duddon Valley. It was his first detailed study of a peatland and it proved to be an extraordinarily rich example. “It was tremendous – in fact it is now classified as a Special Area of Conservation – and turned me into the NCC peat expert for northwest England.”
As an accidental specialist in an emerging field, Richard came to the attention of NCC head office and, somewhat to his surprise, found himself walking to work at its London office past the crowds of punks who congregated on the King’s Road in Chelsea. “I’d always sworn I would never live in London, but I loved it. I saw the dawn of punk rock but I also spent wet weeks analysing remote Scottish peat bogs a hard day’s hike from the nearest road. Alternating between these two worlds made for a potent mix.”
Above all, Richard was stimulated by the rapid rate of peatland destruction. Draining peat bogs for agricultural use began with the 18th-century Agrarian Revolution but accelerated after the Second World War, when food production became an overriding priority, and reached its peak in the early 1980s with a Forestry Grant Scheme of tax breaks for investors planting trees on cheap land. “The cheapest land has always been peat bogs, and they were cleared at an alarming rate to make way for conifer saplings that sometimes didn’t even survive. At times we literally ran ahead of the bulldozers to survey a site before it was destroyed.”
There are peatlands in every country in the world, and at that time many were threatened by harvesting and land grabbing. “Peatlands are the Cinderella habitat – unnoticed and undervalued – but they do so much for us. Just the top 30cm of a hectare of peatland can contain as much carbon as a hectare of rainforest, and a typical peat bog is three to ten metres deep. It’s Nature’s ultimate carbon-capture system.”
Richard joined a global community of scientists working to raise awareness of the issue and in 1984 they formed the International Mire Conservation Group. As chair, he led the group to a series of successes over the next 16 years, including lobbying the UK government to bring an end to the Forestry Grant Scheme in 1988. He is now head of environmental and conservation research at the University of East London and involved with a range of environmental bodies and scientific research groups.
“We still have big issues to address, including the reluctance of the horticultural industry to explore peat alternatives and the possibilities of paludiculture [wet agriculture], but we will get there. Draining land for farming already costs billions. Water levels are rising and flood events becoming more frequent. Do we put our resources into bigger walls, stronger pumps and, ultimately, disaster relief, or do we plan for a more sustainable future?” This month Richard will make the case for peat at the COP26 climate change conference in Glasgow. “I’m concerned that the current government isn’t fully committed to our cause, but I still feel optimistic about the future. There are peat fields in Japan that have formed over 200,000 years of climate change. Working in this field, you develop a ‘peat’ state of mind, which is always long-term. I think in the long-term, we – and the peatlands – are going to be okay.”
Find out more about the Virtual Peatland Pavilion that Richard is running at COP26 at iucn-uk-peatlandprogramme.org