Peat,Trees & Rewilding

But what have peat bogs ever done for me ?……..‘Gwapple me gwapenuts’


If when you think about peat bogs and the brown ooze beneath your feet and the voice inside your head sounds like Professor David Bellamy you are clearly of a certain age.  For it was Bellamy who perhaps brought the humble blanket bog to public attention in the 70s. Bellamy campaigned against the blanket afforestation of the flow country in Scotland ( …but I thought trees were good? ..we come to that later).Incidentally in a legacy-destroying act Bellamy also became, quite bizarrely, a climate-change denier later in life.

Ecologists have always been quite excited by peat.  That is if you can get excited by the 40 plus species of sphagnum moss. But here in the South Pennines our blanket bog  is home to internationally rare birds such as Golden Plover or Curlew.  The numbers of these birds has nose-dived recently perhaps because of a decline in habitat around moorlands and perhaps because of predation– a source of real concern.  Imagine the South Pennines in Spring without the plaintiff call of the Curlew.

Passions run high when talking about grouse moors and the shooting estates.  Raptor persecution has led to the decline of Hen Harriers from our uplands.  Not all estates or gamekeepers are complicit –but the fact that this crime happens at all is enough to make the blood boil.  As a habitat, heather as a single species monoculture, intensively burnt is a long way from the mosaic of species including sphagnum that is the foundation for blanket bog.

As a society we are increasingly seeing our moorlands differently. What once was seen as ‘marginal’ land of little benefit except as poor quality grazing or shooting is being valued for the other ‘services’ that they provide to society sometimes called ecosystem services  (I know – that is a truly appalling name but nobody has come up with anything better- yet!).

Clean drinking water (70% of drinking water in the North originates from the uplands) or carbon sequestration (peatlands are the greatest terrestrial store of carbon on the planet storing double the amount of carbon than the equivalent area of forest) are two of these ‘ecosystem services.’ Regulating surface water flow is another one but let us not forget the sheer sublime beauty of our landscape, too.

These areas are also one of the most important areas for the study of our origins as a pre- agricultural culture since the blanket bog overlays and preserves the activities of Mesolithic man.  Indeed the moorlands of the South Pennines are one of the best places in the world to study the Mesolithic with their flints and fireplaces preserved under the peat.

Restoring peat …. Just add water.


Progress has been made on several estates in Calderdale and Yorkshire Water land to restore blanket bog to an ‘active state’ that stores carbon and reduces surface water run-off.  The peat is amongst the most acidic land in Western Europe.  In part, these areas are anaerobic anyway, but there is also a legacy of airborne particulates from the recent industrial towns.

The loss of peat over time has been really significant.  As peat is washed off moorland it impacts drinking water supplies.  Removing this DOC (Dissolved Organic Carbon) from water is a real cost to the utility companies that actually uses significant amounts of electricity at the water treatment centres.  Yorkshire Water is one of the greatest users of electricity in the region (adding to our climate change woes ).  Think of bare peat a bit like the upland equivalent of tarmac in the town centres in terms of generating surface run-off.

Peatland restoration has been pioneered by Moors for the Future locally, creating peat dams to retain water and applying lime, seed and fertiliser to revegetate bare peat .

There are a number of contractors engaged: excavators re-engineer the surface to reduce the eroding face of the peat hags, dumpy sacks containing moss rich brash are spread to try and get back to a more natural state (or ‘active’ blanket bog).  Specialist nurseries have developed novel systems of propagating sphagnum moss.  At the core of this work is ensuring water and carbon stays where it is for longer…re-wetting.

I have done some casual work for Moors for the Future monitoring dipwells on Turley Holes to check water-levels and see how these sites are re-wetting and ecological surveys.  Check out their website if you fancy joining them.

But shouldn’t we be planting these areas with trees?

Woodland has always been part of uplands going back to the last ice age but the forestry we associate with uplands is relatively recent in the last 100 years, even though it occasionally pops up in period films such as Mike Leigh’s Peterloo (one for the landscape- continuity pedants! ).

There is undoubtedly a high carbon capture benefit from new woodland but the relationship changes over time when woodland matures and the carbon is increasingly stored in soils.  Forestry practice which includes drainage, thinning and clear fell can have a damaging impact upon the fragile soils of uplands whereby the carbon can be lost from these habitats and impact water quality.  So the woodland-peat- carbon relationship is not quite straightforward.  It changes over time.

Most agree that clough woodland in steep valleys away from the deep peat of the moorland plateaux is beneficial for wildlife and creates a habitat that is close to what would naturally be here just like the woodland around Broadhead Clough (SD 995 249) where wet mire, open space, scrub and woodland can all be found together.  Moreover, these ‘clough woodlands’ with their more open canopies of photosynthesising leaves are good to remove carbon from the atmosphere.

What about rewilding ? ….hell, yes, why don’t we just re-introduce wolves and beavers

Rewilding is a real marmite term.  Many farmers see it as a threat but it has caught the public imagination like no other concept.  Some ecologists see it as an over-simplification removing ‘people’ from the landscape with consequences for sensitive ‘cultural’ habitats such as species-rich grasslands and their unintended impacts on invertebrates and pollinators so critical to our flowering plants and crops (but that is a whole new ‘eco-system service story for another day) .

Then there is the oft-suggested reintroduction of beavers.  Beavers may not thrive in the Calder Valley they tend to inhabit more gentle topography of water and forestry.  Whether their desire to create habitat and hence dams would reduce flood risk is a debateable point.

In the profession, we tend to prefer the phrase ‘nature recovery.  But what’s in a name anyway- it’s all really all about trying to work with nature rather than against it whatever name you chose to call it. This can involve landowners and farmers in managing land for public benefit using their knowledge and skills. Some have suggested that the future for farming could be future ‘carbon farmers’.  Check out the video by our very own film maker Andy Clark on this subject