Water Table Monitoring – Autumn 2016

Written by Adrian West-Samuel from Moors for the Future Partnership.

The team at the Moors for the Future Partnership (MFFP) undertakes a range of conservation works to reverse more than 200 years of damage caused by industrial pollution and wildfires that left large areas of the Peak District and South Pennine uplands bare of vegetation.  I had the good fortune to be involved in Moors for the Future’s dipwell monitoring campaign over a period of a few months towards the end of last year.

Why monitor the water table?

To give some background to the monitoring: there are a number of dipwell sites located around the Peak District and South Pennine upland areas. We use them to compare the impact the conservation works are having on water table levels, water storage and channel peak flow.

MFFP is also examining the effect of its work on flooding. Previous projects including Making Space for Water (One and Two) found that practical stabilisation of degraded moorland can add benefit to reducing flood risk at the same time as delivering other benefits. Work undertaken (including gully blocking and re-vegetation) helped to reduce the impact of flooding downstream by holding water back and increasing the time it takes for rainwater to reach a river during a storm.

Citizen Science

For the dipwell campaign, a team of 15 staff, dedicated volunteers and a university placement student checked out the water levels on 10 sites over 11 weeks. In total, more than 9000 measurements were taken across the Peak District and South Pennines every Wednesday. We were out in all weathers, walking across rough terrain on open moorland, without the aid of footpaths or tracks, to each well.

What are dipwells?

The dipwells are 1 metre long tubes, with pre-drilled water access holes, that have been pushed down into the peat – just leaving a small section visible above the ground surface. They are randomly located within a 30 metre square to form small clusters. There are usually a number of clusters positioned within areas of restoration treatment so that comparisons can be made between the different treatment types.

The monitoring itself is fairly low-tech with the essential kit amounting to a plastic pipe and metre long measuring stick. On a dark background, however, black dipwells that only protrude a few centimetres can be difficult to spot!  But armed with a GPS and site map the method works well and once located the readings can be completed in a matter of minutes.

The measurements are all taken on the same day to give a snapshot of water levels across a range of sites across the Peak District and South Pennines, spanning from Chatsworth to Skipton. This work will provide invaluable information on the effect of our conservation work, which aims to ‘rewet’ the moors and provide the right conditions for plants like sphagnum moss, which holds a large amount of water as well as being vital to peat formation in active blanket bog.  Monitoring takes place on intact peat which has not been damaged by industrial pollution or wildfires, and areas of bare peat as well as areas that have undergone conservation work.

A rewarding team activity

Many of the sites are in remote locations and walking across moorland terrain can be challenging. The weather is also testing and often very changeable. But, as a result, the days out were interesting and always rewarding (that feeling sometimes developed a few hours later when back home, warm and dry!). I got to meet some of the other likeminded people involved and our shared passion meant days in good company. At different stages of their journeys and with different motivation there have been plenty of experiences and career advice to exchange.

I love the change of season and the moors offer plenty of indicators to assist and observe this process throughout the year. Spring brings a selection of birds to the moors as the habitat provides an ideal environment for their nesting sites. Summer sees the chicks fledge and then later the flowering heather that moves the colour palette firmly into the pink/purple spectrum. And then the cooler autumn temperature triggers the coat moult of the iconic moorland species: the mountain hares. It’s a privileged time of year to be out on the moor as it offers an occasional glimpse of hares during their white colour stage.

Bring on next autumn’s dipwell campaign!

Find out more about the Moors for the Future Partnership.

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