Steps to save the moors

19th April 2010


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IEMA

MoorLIFE in the Peak District is a landscape scale partnership approach to managing moorland restoration say Dr Richard Campen and Chris Dean.

With around three billion tonnes of carbon, more carbon is stored in UK peat than in the forests of Britain and France combined - making peatlands the largest single carbon reserve in the UK.

The entire UK woodland estate contains only around 150 million tonnes of carbon in comparison. The Peak District moorlands store between 16 and 20 million tonnes of carbon but an annual loss of up to 100 tonnes of carbon per km² through erosion means that action is clearly required.

Re-vegetation of bare peat can lead to a 40 to 70 per cent vegetation cover within two years and thereby stabilise peat. This reduces carbon loss and enhances carbon sequestration through primary productivity.

If Peak District moorlands were under an optimal carbon management regime it has been estimated that they would absorb 160 tonnes (total CO2 equivalent) per square kilometre per year.

The Peak District moors are benefiting from a scheme to do just that - the Moors for the Future partnership programme was established in 2002 with a grant of over £3 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

It aims to restore large parts of moors, and to raise awareness of why the moors are special, and encourage responsible use and care of the landscape, restore and conserve important recreational and natural moorland resources as well as develop expertise on how to protect and manage the moors sustainably.

The programme is led and administered by the Peak District National Park Authority and continues to receive direct funding support from partners across private, public and voluntary sectors, together with indirect support from a wider group of stakeholders with an interest in the moorlands.

The programme also received a record amount of funding from the European Union Life Programme, some €5.018 million, and will run until March 2015.

The programme, ‘MoorLIFE', has three key objectives:

  • implementation of best practice to protect the integrity of 1,600 hectares of active blanket bog in the South Pennines Special Area of Conservation;
  • a landscape scale restoration of blanket bog habitat and comprehensive monitoring of vegetation and hydrology; and
  • knowledge transfer through delivery of a programme of training schemes and innovative interactive lifelong learning projects through new and existing media, including a fully interactive website and a series of seminars/conferences.

Erosion

But the main objective of MoorLIFE is to implement best practice to protect the integrity of 1,600 hectares of active blanket bog.

The loss of vegetation and peat is an aesthetic issue for walkers, an agricultural and sporting issue for landowners, an ecological issue for moorland habitats and wildlife and a long-term economic issue for water companies who have to remove water coloration and sediment from reservoirs.

Restoring vegetation to bare peat will also help to enhance its water retention capacity and reduce downstream flooding.

The moors are also a priority habitat of the EU Birds and Habitats Directive and are internationally-recognised for their breeding birds and provide habitat for nationally rare and significant plant communities.

Research points to a combination of several factors that have caused the erosion: air pollution, sheep grazing pressure, uncontrolled fires, climatic change, recreational trampling as well as natural processes. Although no one can be sure of the precise causes at any site, it is clear that once erosion begins it is a worsening problem unless tackled.

To this end the primary aim of MoorLIFE is to protect active Sphagnum moss blanket bog across the degraded moorlands by implementing current best practice to stabilise areas of bare peat within the area.

It will seek to reduce the erosion of bare peat, restore a significant area of severely damaged peat bog and deliver an innovative knowledge transfer programme to deliver sustained management and prevent further deterioration.

Moorland restoration for carbon also has a number of multiple public benefits through ecosystem services including an improvement in biodiversity by helping to enhance wildlife habitats and restore species diversity.

A reduction in flood events and sedimentation can also be achieved through better drainage as well as a reduction in wildfire risk and the associated loss of long term carbon stocks.

Indeed in the Peak District alone, there is potential to sequester up to 13,000 tonnes of carbon per year.

Finally moorland restoration can also improve the natural beauty and recreational value of the area - uplands are among the most popular tourist destinations and tourism is one of the main income streams to upland communities.

These issues all have significant economic impacts, which could be mitigated through large-scale restoration of peatlands upstream.

Previous efforts

But efforts to save the peat are not new. Over the past five years the Moors for the Future partnership has worked to stabilise 120 hectares of bare and eroding peat and considerable expertise has been developed by the project team, who have devised and trialled new and successful techniques for restoring eroding blanket bog at a landscape scale, which has protected a further 550 hectares of blanket bog.

Best practice has been informed from monitoring the success of all capital restoration works and additionally through commission and collaboration with academic institutions on a number of research projects that have sought to assess and develop restoration practices.

In addition, associated gully blocking and diversification works will also redress the current levels of peat desiccation and loss to improve their hydrological functioning. This work will build resilience into the system to safeguard the site against future damage in a changing climate with increased visitor numbers and the implied increasing frequency of damaging summer wildfires.

Indeed, gully blocking can accumulate sediment layers of up to 40cm height behind blocks within one year and can also raise water tables. Gully lining with geo-jute also promotes re-vegetation and limits erosion.

On Peak District plateau, gully restoration affects carbon fixation rates in order of importance by increasing vegetation cover, minimising erosion (particulate organic carbon loss) and reducing drainage. The combined created sink and avoided loss by gully/grip blocking could equate to between 64 and 135 tonnes carbon/km2 per year.

Within the overall 1,600-hectare project site the MoorLIFE team will aim to treat 862 hectares of the most badly damaged active blanket bog, of which 186 hectares is bare and eroding peat. This will be stabilised using grass ‘nurse' crops, heather brash and geo-textiles. The grasses have the additional effect of moderating local environmental conditions to help facilitate re-colonisation by native vegetation.

The MoorLIFE project team has estimated that a programme of work to stabilise this 186 hectares of bare and eroding peat will prevent the loss of some 46,500 cubic metres of peat per year, which equates to approximately 629 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere per year.

This is an impressive statistic, which clearly demonstrates the efficacy of the works in mitigating climate change.

MoorLIFE - key outputs in summary:

  • Stabilise and diversify 587 hectares of damaged ground (186 hectares of bare and eroding peat) within a mosaic of 1,327 hectares of active blanket bog
  • Diversify an additional 516ha of stabilised peat, comprising the planting of 165,000 plug plants and inoculation with Sphagnum
  • Installation of 4,000 gully blocks along 40km of gullies
  • Establish best practice of plug planting and sphagnum delivery at a landscape scale
  • Initiate a wildfire awareness-raising programme to reduce the risk and damage caused by fires by the installation of two interactive computer displays at key moorland gateway centres (used by 40,000 people per year) and two downloadable ‘fire-aware' computer games for children
  • Provide an educational programme on the ecology of blanket bogs, the threats they face, the services they provide and their restoration. This will be via four audio trails (downloadable self-guide walks) and five digital field guides (eg plants, animal, restoration techniques)
  • Undertake monthly bird surveys over three years of the project and annual water vole surveys to determine the impact of the restoration works on moorland wildlife
  • Conduct annual vegetation surveys of 300 fixed vegetation plots to assess restoration success
  • Initiate monitoring of carbon flux and hydrological functioning from different blanket bog habitats and conditions within the Special Area for Conservation covering the restored and active areas.

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