The Blanket Bog Restoration Toolkit is constantly growing!

Guest blog from Chris Fry, Moors for the Future Partnership’s Conservation Quality Manager. Moors For The Future are one of our partners in The Source Partnership

In March 2021 a relatively unknown hill near a town called Ramsbottom became the flagship site for a new way of working on our damaged upland peat.  

Holcombe and Stubbins (one part of the hill) and Musden Head (the other side of the same hill) have received a lot of work in the past couple of years thanks to MoorCARBON – one of DEFRA’s big projects from 2018 – pushing to secure our peaty carbon and all the other associated benefits through peatland restoration. I’m sure you’ve heard it before but it is true; better water quality and supply; unique and important wildlife; unparalleled visitor experiences; flood mitigation as well as building a stronger future for rural businesses – these are all within reach if we manage our landscapes better.  

Peat is a super soil. It is only 3% of the earth’s land surface yet holds a whopping 42% of the world’s terrestrial carbon. (IUCN: Peatlands and climate change | IUCN).  

More than two thirds of our water supplies come from these upland peaty landscapes. Water companies are already clued up on the wider value of this land and have spent millions of pounds restoring peatlands so they don’t have to spend, clean or pollute so much while keeping our taps flowing in our homes. 

Damaged peatlands are horrific sources of carbon and pollution to water supplies when they are degraded and ecologically failing. The impact on wildlife is still evident if you happen to visit Kinder Scout and visit the control plot known as Firmin (Tim Allott on Twitter: “Indulge me – here’s a long thread on something that keeps me optimistic. It’s the story of my favourite landscape image. Also involves environmental restoration, family, partnership working, bogs, skylarks … and classic animated children’s TV shows. 1/25” / Twitter). Turning it from this poor fate into our super carbon sinks is an obvious win for us all, our environment and the wildlife it supports.    

But currently about 80% of our peatlands are in poor condition and failing ecologically, according to Natural England.    

So how do we do it then, smarty pants?    

OK … try this:

Critically, peat is only stable if it is wet and vegetated. Bare peat, eroding gullies, draining grips and dwindling species composition do us no favours. We need the widest range of our boggy plants to vegetate every detailed, specific inch of our moorlands. And we need the peat wet – and wet right to the top (in winter at least) – if we want these bog plants to thrive and then function for us. Together they make “Team Acrotelm”. Apart they are lonely, listless and struggling.  

The rich mossy vegetative layer with variable water content (the acrotelm), which lies over healthy, water-filled blanket peat (the catotelm), has a vast and under-appreciated role in the infrastructure of our lives. Water cannot percolate into already-waterlogged peat, so in storms it has to go somewhere; but this mossy blanket makes each drop wiggle and turn a million times before it leaves the hill. Thereby slowed all the way, every inch. 

Peat cores showed Holcombe Moor to be severely damaged, haplotelmic; with no sign of an acrotelm.  Only the lower peat remained with a scant covering of limited vegetation, mostly cotton grass.  I thought it looked like the hair on Charlie Brown’s head.  

Also, on Holcombe Moor the ground was so even and featureless that traditional methods of restoration such as using cut heather (brash), lime, seed and fertiliser to revegetate bare peat; or stone, timber or peat dams to block erosion gullies and grips could not be applied in enough locations to make a big difference.  

Figure 1: Holcombe and Stubbins Moor, October 2018; trying to identify flow paths on a bowling green … (Thanks to Nik Taylor and Mark Philips for posing appropriately).
Figure 2: a closer look revealed extensive bare peat between the plants’ stems – the acrotelm had long since disappeared leaving behind a poor remnant, with extreme overland flow everywhere.

So something else had to be considered.  

The problem (high water flow over the peat surface) was everywhere and subtle. So the solution had to be that too.  

The solution had to be everywhere, not just in the gullies and bare peat pans where work in the past has focused. This work went to the top of the hill because that’s where the water’s flow begins.  

Of the current tools available to slow the flow on peatlands, peat dams have for years offered the greatest economy of scale, alongside the best recovery trajectories, when compared to stone, timber, plastic, heather, coir or anything else.  We love them! 

Also, on the lowland raised peat bogs peat bunds have been used for decades with great success.  

So we talked about it with the people most connected to this hill, (the stakeholders), and they agreed that something a bit like this, but suited to this particular location, was the best option for their future.  

And it looks like this:

Figure 3: Peat bunds take old proven ideas like peat dams and bring them right to the top of the hill. Slowing the flow from where the first drops of rain fall, not just where the damage is most obvious.  

Over three thousand, three hundred bunds were created using wide tracked excavators, across ninety hectares of deep peat, right at the top of this hill.  

As the photo below shows, the wading birds moved back in before the excavators had even left the site.  

Figure 4 Golden plover feeding on newly created bunds

A trial on a nearby hill called Close Moss is already demonstrating that these bunded features hold the water back for up to thirteen hours after a storm, and the peat is rewetting.  It is becoming more homely for those tiny and often overlooked species which are in fact the critical infrastructure supporting our lives.  

Huge thanks are owed to all the stakeholders of this project. Natural England, United Utilities, the National Trust, the Commoners and my Moors for the Future colleagues all worked and talked together brilliantly for the long-term good of this hill and its people.