Peatlands are wetland landscapes formed from the accumulation of dead and decaying plants over thousands of years in the presence of waterlogged conditions. This organic matter is called peat. They occupy 3% of land globally and 12% within the UK. There are multiple types of peatlands, three of which are common in the UK:
- Blanket bog – the dominant type, is mainly found in uplands and stays wet through rainfall.
- Raised bog – they are dome-shaped and found in lowland areas; also replenished by rainfall.
- Fens – here mineral-rich groundwater, river water and rainfall contribute to waterlogging.
Why are peatlands important?
Healthy peatlands are pretty incredible ecosystems, as they:
- Store large amounts of carbon, containing twice as much carbon as the world’s forests. Degraded peatlands have no vegetation coverage, so peat gets washed or blown away, releasing carbon. According to the UN Environment Programme, protecting and restoring peatlands can reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 800 million metric tonnes per year (equivalent to Germany’s annual emissions).
- Provide a home to a diverse range of wildlife, such as cotton grass, bog bush cricket, black darter dragonfly, curlew, golden plover, mountain hare and insect-eating sundew plants.
- Aid water quality – as water run-off from bare, degraded peatlands will contain peat/pollutants and requires more processing by water companies to make it safe for consumption.
- Contribute to water security and flood management as the vegetation slows the flow into rivers.
- Provide a beautiful landscape to be appreciated by all.
How did they get degraded?
Peatlands need to stay wet to thrive, so activities that drain the land result in degradation. Industrialisation, land-use change (e.g., agriculture or forestry), wildfires, and peat extraction for horticultural and energy production are predominant culprits. Damaged peatlands amount to 15% globally and a whopping 80% within the UK.
Restoration of the Peak District and South Pennine Moors
My podcast conversation with Robbie Carnegie from the Moors for the Future partnership (MFTF) provided a fascinating insight into the restoration efforts of The Peak District and South Pennine Moors, once described as the most degraded upland habitat in Europe. The partnership is led by the Peak District National Park Authority and supported by various organisations, such as the Environment Agency, South Pennines Park, water companies, and others working to protect nature in the UK.
Degradation is down to the industrial revolution, starting in the early 19th century. Major industrial cities, Sheffield, Manchester, Stoke-on-Trent, Bradford, and Leeds, surround this area, casting smoke and pollution from every direction. Rain exacerbated the situation, dispersing heavy metals and chemicals. This acid rain stripped away the vegetation, leaving exposed black, dead peat, leaving a barren landscape unable to recover by itself.
Restoration is required, as left to its own devices, life does not reappear. At Kinder, this is evidenced by a control site, with no intervention, and bare peat remains. Restoration of highly degraded peatland is a labour-intensive process; there are several stages:
- The stabilisation of bare peat – heather brash containing heather seeds, moss fragments and spores are cut from elsewhere and spread using pitchforks over the bare peat to protect it from the elements, preventing further erosion.
- Seeds from fast-growing grasses, dwarf shrubs and wavy hair-grass are sown with lime (to reduce acidity caused by pollution) and fertilizer, via helicopter. These fast-growing grasses provide further stability and are intermediary vegetation enabling a variety of plants to establish themselves.
- Planting sphagnum moss and other moorland plants – sphagnum is particularly important, as it helps to rewet the soil by soaking up to twenty times its weight in water. They also degrade from the bottom up, creating additional peat, albeit slowly at about 1mm a year, and aid water quality through their natural antiseptic function. They are hand-planted as plug plants, about 50p in size, using a trowel, 1m apart.
- Gully blocks, amounting to little, leaky dams made from wood/stone/peat, are placed within gullies (steep-sided channels developed through erosion) to slow water flow. They create pools of water, helping to keep the land wet and encouraging wildlife.
Monitoring undertaken by volunteers is crucial to ensure the peatlands flourish and to prevent one species from over-dominating. Aerial photography, satellite imagery, and on-the-ground vegetation surveys help measure biodiversity, and dipwells (plastic tube and a ruler) check the level of the water table.
In Kinder, the Derbyshire Bat Group discovered bat species never seen before in this location – clear proof of a thriving ecosystem.
MTFT are keen to inspire people to love the moors, ensuring it is valued and respected, reducing the risk of harm and unintended wildfires damaging precious wildlife. They do this in many ways, one of which involves their Bogtastic van, travelling to events and beauty spots to communicate to the public what they are doing and why. It’s about engaging everyone in protecting moorlands.
Peatlands in summary
So, there you have it! Peatlands are super-valuable wetland ecosystems, which over time have been severely damaged by us humans. Through restoration, multiple benefits arise for wildlife and people, and this landscape offers beautiful places to feed the soul.