The wild moorland landscape at the heart of England is changing - but not everyone understands how or why. A recent walk jointly organised by the BMC and Moors for the Future gave walkers and climbers a chance to find out more.
As one participant put it: “Obviously the venue was Bleaklow. Obviously it was raining. Obviously there was clag.”
It wasn’t everyone’s idea of a nice Tuesday evening. But even so, a total of 15 stalwart people came together recently for an opportunity to learn more about how this soggy, wild, well-loved landscape at the heart of England is changing for the benefit of both human and natural society.
Arranged by the BMC Peak Area’s Hill Walking Rep, Peter Judd, it was a chance for recreational users to learn more about the ongoing effort to transform what were once thought of as barren badlands into lush upland plateaus.
Staff from the Moors for the Future Partnership, including Partnership Manager Chris Dean, took the group of walkers and climbers on a guided walk along the route to Bleaklow Head. The aim was to increase understanding of how the Peak District moors are literally changing under our feet, and why these changes should be understood by everyone who enjoys these places.
The story starts with the industrial revolution. Fast-flowing waters tumbling from the Pennines helped to power the growth of huge conurbations like Manchester and Sheffield. After millennia of remoteness, moors like Bleaklow were suddenly surrounded by civilisation – today more than half of England’s population live within half an hour of the Peak District.
The blanket bog found on Kinder or Bleaklow has taken up to 9,000 years to form. Though it may seem extensive when you’re lost within it or mired up to your knees, blanket bog is globally rare, confined to cool, wet, oceanic climates – the UK has up to 15% of the total area worldwide.
Years of industrial pollution, moorland fires, overgrazing and erosion took their toll on the Peak District moors, until they became notorious as big black bogs, stripped of much of their life and vegetation. In the 1960s, writer and prolific long-distance walker John Hillaby described neighbouring Kinder Scout as “a land at the end of its tether.” Wainwright referred to nearby Black Hill as “a desolate and hopeless quagmire… this is peat, naked and unashamed.”
But since the Moors for the Future Partnership was formed in 2003, more than £32 million has been spent on trying to repair the damage. It has restored 5,000 acres of moorland, planted 250,000 moorland plants and 40,000 trees, and spread 40 million beads of sphagnum moss – the stuff that helps peat bogs to build.
Though it might have seemed unlikely on a sodden evening like this, more than 400 wildfires have been recorded on the Peak District moors since records began.
The staff explained how it was once common for farmers to ignite large areas of moorland each year to eradicate sheep ticks and encourage new growth favourable to grazing, and some of the grouse shooting estates used to dig extensive ditches to drain the moor tops of water, increasing their vulnerability to fire. Industrial workers coming out of the cities to walk the moors on Sundays, often pipe or cigarette smokers, are also thought to have unwittingly started huge conflagrations.
The destruction of vegetation by moorland fires creates a vicious cycle, exposing more highly flammable bare peat, making potential tinderboxes out of huge swathes of land during dry weather. Two months after the Moors for the Future partnership began in 2003, a fire on Bleaklow destroyed 14 football pitches worth of moorland, and the resulting smoke forced Manchester Airport to close.
Staff explained the importance of ‘rewetting’ the moors in order to prevent bare peat washing away. If you regularly walk or climb on Peak District moorland, you will have noticed the impact of this work, in particular the temporary technique of blocking gullies with plastic dams to hold water back.
A wetter Bleaklow also creates more favourable conditions for vegetation to flourish, which in turn prevents water run-off and peat erosion; sphagnum moss acts like a sponge, absorbing more than eight times its weight in water.
Naturally, transformative work of this sort has generated interest and sometimes controversy among outdoor enthusiasts. Moors for the Future staff recalled how some walkers were very against these changes in the early stages, having been used to the bare peat environment all their walking lives.
But natural firefighting is not the only benefit of a restored blanket bog. Less peat flowing off the moors and into the reservoirs below means improved water quality. More vegetation helps to slow water down during floods, reducing their impact. And while peat bog takes in carbon from the air when healthy, it releases it through erosion and oxidisation when damaged, giving a twofold incentive to restore it.
The group on a murky Bleaklow
A healthier blanket bog also means better conditions for wildlife, the natural filigree which most walkers find intrinsic to their enjoyment. What were once ominous areas of steaming brown peat are now lush upland prairies of swaying cotton grasses. A better habitat will assist mountain hares, short-eared owls, golden plovers and a range of other moorland species to flourish.
Moors for the Future are also carrying out a programme of bringing native trees such as rowan and oak back to the cloughs (side-valleys) which run off the moors, which will stabilise the soil to assist water quality, and benefit woodland wildlife species.
Long way to go
Staff stressed they were not carrying out a full ‘rewilding’ as such. The aim of the partnership is not to take the top of the moorland back to how it would have looked soon after the Ice Age glaciers had retreated, when it would have been covered in woodland.
Some native trees have recently been known to spread from the reforested cloughs on to the moor tops. Staff said they do not actively remove these, but that when the naturally acidic blanket bog conditions returned they would be unlikely to prosper in the long term anyway.
However, the staff stressed that there is still a long way to go even in achieving a healthy blanket bog. Areas which look green and thriving to the untrained eye can still contain a minimal diversity of species. Often this ‘re-greening’ is only the first step towards a longer term goal of making a genuinely self-sustaining blanket bog environment.
So what is the future for Moors for the Future? In recent years it has received the bulk of its funding from the European Union; £5 million from the EU’s LIFE fund in 2010, and €12 million from the same fund in 2015. Severn Trent Water, Yorkshire Water and United Utilities have together provided £5.7 million over the same period.
The UK is, of course, set to depart the European Union in 2019. Moors for the Future’s current funding will last until 2020 regardless, but beyond that hangs a big question mark. While much progress has been made so far, the work of restoring the Peak District moors is a long term endeavour with a timeline stretching far beyond the next few years.
It is just one example of the many ways our exit from the European Union has the potential to profound affect our landscapes. In the coming years the BMC will be pressing hard to ensure the places we care about continue to be cared for and supported following Brexit.
As the climbing walls, crags and mountains start to open, we wanted to say thanks to every BMC member who supported us through the Coronavirus crisis.
From weekly Facebook Lives and GB Climbing home training videos, to our access team working to re-open the crags and fight for your mountain access, we couldn’t have made it without you.
If you liked what we did, then tell your friends about us: www.thebmc.co.uk/join