By 2050, Estonia plans to restore at least 25,000 hectares of drained peatlands. Officials claim that the total cost of the work has not been calculated, but together with the European Union (EU), more than €40 million have already been spent on peatland restoration over the past couple of decades.
"Estonia has nearly two decades of experience in restoring the natural state of wetlands," Antti Tooming, deputy secretary general for biodiversity and environmental protection of the Ministry of Climate, told ERR. "For the ecological restoration of wetlands, mainly peatland ecosystems damaged by drainage, European Union funds have been used extensively – various LIFE program projects and structural funds. In total, approximately €40 million, in addition to €3.3 million spent on the cleanup of residual peatlands."
"The total cost of all necessary restoration work has not been calculated, as each area and the volume of work vary," Tooming stated.
Tooming mentioned that peatland restoration has a positive impact on biodiversity and climate.
"Wetland restoration is so heavily funded by the European Union taxpayer because wetlands are providers of very important ecosystems. Among terrestrial ecosystems, peatlands and swamp forests are the largest and only long-term net binders of carbon, extracting it from the carbon cycle and depositing it in peat. However, this is only as long as the peat remains wet. In peatlands and swamp forests with disrupted water regimes due to drainage, the carbon stored in the peat layer is released, and the dry peat layer becomes a source of carbon emissions instead. Reducing CO2 emissions is a challenge for the whole world, including Estonia, so in addition to its positive impact on biodiversity, restoring the naturalness of wetlands is also important in the context of climate change," Tooming explained.
"Scientists have assessed the economic impact of peatland restoration and found that every euro invested in wetland restoration enables a return of €8-38 from nature restoration," Tooming said.
Human-impacted wetlands, including old mining areas and drained peatlands, have lost their original function and no longer bind carbon, with the peatland ecosystem being damaged. In other words, species characteristic of peatlands, many of which are protected, such as the black stork and capercaillie, have disappeared or are in the minority, explained Antti Tooming.
Residual peatlands, or peat mines, are also significant fire hazards, according to Tooming. "They are not only major greenhouse gas emitters but also highly prone to fire, associated with air pollution," Tooming stated.
The reasons for peatland restoration, as Tooming outlined, include halting the degradation of damaged peatland habitat types, restoring the edge communities of destroyed peatlands, restoring habitats for endangered and rare species, stopping the decomposition process of drained peat and carbon dioxide emissions, increasing the water retention capacity of peatland landscapes and buffering the impacts of droughts and floods.
Estonia has over 1.38 million hectares of drained areas, from which restoration areas are selected based on their significance and restoration potential.
Selection is based on importance – internationally significant wetlands, areas belonging to the pan-European network, essential parts of larger peat complexes for maintaining an integral water regime, particularly habitats for endangered species. Restoration potential – areas where restoration efforts are most likely to yield results cost-effectively, Tooming explained.
"Certainly, there is no plan to eliminate drainage and carry out restoration activities on all 1.38 million hectares. Restoration concerns areas where it is possible to improve the condition of ecosystems cost-effectively," said Tooming.
Tooming noted that nature's ability to self-restore is considered, but in places where human activity has significantly damaged the natural ecosystem, we must assist in its restoration. "Often, a little help is enough – this could be simply refraining from reconstructing drainage ditches. In some cases, however, ditches must first be closed, and then nature takes over," he said.
Restoration involves extensive collaboration and clarification work with communities. Most restoration work has been done on state lands, and this practice will continue. "Private lands are generally excluded from restoration areas, but wetting can affect surrounding lands, so involving all affected parties is necessary, as has been done so far," Tooming stated.
Tooming mentioned that wetland restoration often goes unnoticed by people but helps preserve and protect Estonian nature for future generations. "It also creates more opportunities to enjoy and use nature's benefits – from cloudberries and cranberries to bird songs," Tooming said.
In Estonia, there are more than 1.38 million hectares of drained areas, approximately 748,000 hectares of forest land, and 637,000 hectares of agricultural land. Peat is currently mined on about 13,000 hectares, with 9,371 hectares of abandoned peat mining areas. These numbers are on a downward trend – as of last year, the natural water regime has been restored on approximately 20,000 hectares across various peatland ecosystems, including more than 2,000 hectares in residual peatlands.
Editor: Marcus Turovski