For peat’s sake: the race is on to save Britain’s disappearing moorland bogs
Finally recognised for its environmental benefits, the UK’s ‘Cinderella habitat’ is at the heart of a major conservation drive
Up in the blustery hills of the Yorkshire Dales on an August afternoon, conservationist Jenny Sharman points out a cottongrass plant, resembling white fluff on a stalk, in a patch of dark, almost black, peat.
“We didn’t plant that one,” she says. “It’s surprising how quickly nature responds. You just have to give it a chance to return. It’s really lovely to see.” Sharman, a peatland restoration officer with the Yorkshire Peat Partnership, led by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, is working against the clock to save the north of England’s rapidly declining bogs. It may sound like the least sexy conservation scheme on earth but bog restoration is in vogue thanks to our increasing understanding of its huge environmental benefits, including large-scale carbon capture and desperately needed flood prevention.
Blanket bog, an upland peatland habitat, is fairly unique. Only a few European countries have any at all and it is mostly concentrated in Ireland, Scotland and England. About 92% of England’s blanket bog is in the north of the country, mostly in Yorkshire. But this vital and delicate part of the ecosystem is disappearing, in many cases having been deliberately drained to graze sheep and shoot grouse, and now the moorland is etched with deep channels through which, each year, hundreds of tonnes of crucially important peat is simply being washed away by the weather.
“It’s taken us a long time to realise the damage we were doing,” Sharman says, describing how the surge of water after heavy rainfall destroys roads and deposits mounds of large rocks in farmers’ fields.
The town of Otley, more than 30 miles downstream, is on constant alert for flooding, having watched homes succumb to the water every time there is a major storm. Where the water comes from is no mystery – the deep brown colouration of the River Wharfe indicates that it is saturated with peat.
Research by Dr Emma Shuttleworth and her colleagues at the University of Manchester found that restoring peatland in one area reduced the peak volume of water flowing off the moorland by 57% and made it three times slower. But this is not just about flooding – peat is one of the world’s most effective forms of natural carbon capture. It is estimated the Yorkshire Peat Partnership has already saved 48m tonnes of carbon from being released into the atmosphere through peat degradation.
Dr Shuttleworth, a lecturer in physical geography, said: “Peatland restoration is about multiple benefits, it’s not just about the flood control, it’s not just about the ecosystem recovery, it’s not just about the carbon. So, to me, it’s a bit of a no brainer to invest in peatland restoration.”
Some of the peat is up to 8,000 years old and when putting in the dams, contractors found a perfectly preserved tree trunk, which was carbon-dated to 4,000 years ago, likely part of an ancient forest effectively pickled by the acidic peat.
“If you think of it in terms of geological timescales, it’s taken quite a long time to build up and then almost in the blink of an eye you remove that vegetation, and then everything just cascades from there,” says Shuttleworth. “It’s one of those self-perpetuating things – once it takes hold, it just snowballs and gets worse and worse.” Here at Fleet Moss, 160 hectares (395 acres) of open moorland straddling the districts of Richmondshire and Craven, an enormous amount of work has been done, in partnership with a landowner, to start to undo the damage, building hundreds of dams out of stone, wood or coir (Sri Lankan coconut husks).
This project marks the first time this combination of interventions has been used on blanket bog and, unlike a lot of conservation schemes, the benefits of the bog restoration work undertaken just months ago are already visible. Silt is building up behind the dams and filling in the miles of deep channels and native plants like cottongrass and sphagnum moss, which can hold 26 times its weight in water, are again thriving. Sphagnum moss in particular acts like a sponge, soaking up rain and snow and slowing the flow of the water dramatically.
Dr Shuttleworth said: “It’s incredibly satisfying restoration work. With the vegetation, you see within one growing season, one summer, you’ve gone from a dark black surface to a lovely lush green surface.”
Owls, frogs, foxes and weasels are now regularly seen and there are signs of otters too, despite being an otherwise desolate-looking landscape 600 metres (1,969ft) above sea level. The important thing now is to keep up the momentum, says peat programme manager Dr Tim Thom: “We’ve always called peatlands the Cinderella habitat because they’ve been doing lots of hard work in the background but being generally treated badly and abused. Finally it feels like this last couple of years Cinderella has come to the ball.”
Between November last year and March this year, Yorkshire Peat Partnership carried out restoration work on 5,048ha of blanket bog, thanks to funding from the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Environment Agency and many others.
“We’ve done a good job but it’s still a relatively small proportion of all the peatlands that need restoring,” Dr Thom said.
“There are lots of competing demands on resources when it comes to the environment and wildlife now so we’ve just got to keep peatlands in the forefront of people’s minds,” he added.