Our peatlands store more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined and yet here on our doorstep, they're in a state of degradation. As part of The Climate Project's Let's Plant Moor series, Moors For The Future Partnership Officer Alice Leary takes a look at the knock-on effect on the nature surrounding us and what's being done to prevent it.
Peat has always been a giant of our natural history. Globally, it is hugely important to carbon sequestering and carbon storing. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), “peatlands store more carbon than all other vegetation types in the world combined”. As a result, their importance is only increasing as climate change begins to alter the functioning of the natural world, and inevitably with it, the fate of human beings.
The UK contains 13% of the world’s peatlands, made up of fen, raised bog, and blanket bog. It is blanket bogs that are found in the uplands of the Peak District National Park.
Blanket bogs and their importance for Kinder, and the planet
Blanket bogs are waterlogged, nutrient poor, and are dominated by acid-loving plants, notably sphagnum moss. They are fed only by rainwater, and lose little water through evaporation. These conditions conspire together to create a unique environment that reduces the ability for plants, dead animals and even humans (think of Lindow Man) to decompose. Archaeologists have often been treated to nearly intact glimpses into the past thanks to the preservative qualities of blanket bogs.
This particular skillset is the reason behind the formation of peat. As the plants like sphagnum moss go through their life cycles, instead of decomposing to become normal soil, they become compressed over millennia and form peat. In this upland version of the circle of life, it is this process that captures and locks the carbon into the peat and into the ground.
As this life cycle plays out at a pace slower than our minds can imagine, curlews, golden plovers and lapwings are becoming ever more dependent on calling these bogs their home. The diversity of species that depend on blanket bogs is limited, but the importance of blanket bogs for biodiversity lies in the fact that many of the animals that do rely on them are struggling. This makes the bogs vitally important refuges for the dwindling populations of wildlife like the curlew that have recently been nesting on these upland moors.
Bogs prevent flooding
Photo: Moors For The Future
It may sound counterintuitive but the wetness of blanket bogs also makes them excellent forms of natural flood management. By holding onto the rain, they reduce the occurrence of flash floods by slowing the flow of water into the valleys below. This waterlogged condition also reduces the incidence and spread of wildfire.
Many of England’s blanket bogs are degraded. The bogs of Kinder Scout were in bad shape due to historic acid rain and wildfire. Moors for the Future Partnership [the Partnership has been working across the landscape to return these moors into the healthy bogs they once were.
Over time, erosion gullies have formed, some of which are now so deep that they reach the bedrock. They can be as much as 4 metres deep, draining the peat and drying it out. Moors for the Partnership block erosion gullies with dams to slow the flow of water, stabilising the eroding peat and encouraging revegetation. They spread cut heather (brash) to introduce plants to the degraded peat, and spread lime, seed and fertiliser to reduce the acidity of the peat and help them grow. They plant sphagnum moss, bilberry, cotton grass and other native plants.
The Partnership works across the Peak District National Park, South Pennines Special Area of Conservation and the West Pennine Moors SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest).
One of the keystones in the research and monitoring calendar is moorland vegetation monitoring season. Starting every year in late July, once the birds that have nested on the ground have safely fledged the nest, a dedicated team of staff and volunteers have been monitoring vegetation cover since the start of the Partnership back in 2003.
Monitoring has helped us understand how to re-establish native moorland plants successfully, including sphagnum moss. It is only thanks to our team of dedicated volunteers over the years that we have been able to collect such a vast dataset – both in terms of geographical area and duration (18 years and counting).
If we do nothing, the moors won't recover
At the time of the restoration works, an area on the Kinder plateau was left untreated, so that the Partnership could compare what happens in areas which have been restored, to this area has been left untouched. While the restored sites have developed rich and diverse communities of different grasses, dwarf shrubs and mosses, this bare peat ‘control’ area remains just as it was – barren bare peat with almost no plant life at all. This is site is quite clearly visible on satellite imagery – including Google Maps – as a blackened rectangle on the Kinder plateau. This is a stark reminder of the condition that the moors were in pre-restoration and that if we do nothing, vegetation recovery simply doesn’t happen.
The unrestored patch of moorland on Kinder contrasts with the rest of the restored moor around it. Photo: Google Maps
By contrast, where we intervene, re-introduce vegetation cover and create the right conditions, the changes - and steps to recovery - are clear to see. An area close-by that has been planted intensively with sphagnum has thrived where it has been planted, growing at a rate that has carpeted large areas of the moor. This blanket of sphagnum is already supporting wildlife – recently indicated by the discovery of bats flying and foraging atop the plateau, discovered thanks to a joint monitoring programme alongside Derbyshire Bat Group. This is the highest altitude that bats have been recorded in Derbyshire and is evidence that the habitat is supporting sufficient insects to support the onward food chain.
Since Moors for the Future Partnership began their work in 2003, they have transformed 35 km2 of black, degraded peat in the Peak District National Park and South Pennines.
It sounds like a lot, and it is. But there is much more that needs to be done to get these bogs back into shape. We should all want, because we all need, these bogs to function as the giants of the natural world they once were.
The BMC's Climate Project supports the work of Moors for the Future.
Your support will help:
🌱 Actively fight the climate crisis
🛡️ Protect endangered wildlife
❌ 🔥 Reduce wildfire risk
❌ 🌊 Reduce flooding risk
It costs £25 to plant one square metre of sphagnum moss and create a healthy moor. hanks to you, we’ve raised £30,000 for The Climate Project so far. This will restore 1,200 square meters of sphagnum on our Peak District moors.