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Moorland management on blanket bogs: Is there a one-size fits all solution?

Updated: Jul 27, 2020

Dr Andreas Heinemeyer is a Senior Research Fellow at the Stockholm Environment Institute and he is currently in the final stretch of a ten-year study into the management of upland peat bogs at the University of York.

As we all know, peat bogs and the UK’s uplands more generally can be a controversial topic to cover. They are both a huge carbon store and a unique habitat; but sit at the heart of differing viewpoints on land ownership, shooting, the impact of heather burning and what impact moorland management can have on the flooding of towns and villages in the valleys.

“The management of upland heather-dominated peatlands is a hugely controversial issue, provoking fierce arguments that are often based more on emotion than on sound scientific evidence,” says Dr Heinemeyer. His study aims to provide just that rigorous scientific evidence.

The first half of the study – the first five years – was funded through the £1m Defra project "Restoration of heather-dominated blanket bog vegetation on grouse moors for biodiversity, carbon storage, greenhouse gas emissions and water regulation: comparing burning to alternative mowing and uncut management". The second phase, which is currently underway, is funded by a mixture of stakeholders, including Yorkshire Water and United Utilities, the Moorland Association, BASC, and the Heather Trust. Natural England and the Yorkshire Peat Partnership also play a role, as part of two PHD projects.

This is an interesting partnership, as they obviously have differing interests in the moorlands and, often, different views on how they should be used or managed.

“Being engaged with such a diversity of stakeholders adds real value and credibility to our research,” Andreas said. “Our partners may have different interests in the blanket bog habitat, but they share a common goal: to address the fundamental gaps in our knowledge of how these slow but incredibly important moorland systems work and how to manage them in a sustainable and responsible way.”

The current work revolves around comparing the impacts of burning and cutting of heather, as well as what happens when the vegetation is left to nature. “For the first time we are able to compare these alternatives and measure their impact using both plot and catchment area evidence, which is so important for practitioners and understanding large-scale impacts on climate and flooding,” explains Dr Heinemeyer.

These are topics that are revisited again and again. Indeed, just yesterday in Calderdale, the council’s ruling Labour Group made moves towards a ban on moorland burning in the area. But the results of Dr Heinemeyer’s study so far might come as a surprise to the council leaders. “When we burn, we do pollute the air, but we also lock away some of the carbon for a very long time in the form of charcoal. Mowing, by contrast, leaves a huge amount of biomass which generally nearly all decomposes and releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere: so, you don’t have that carbon capture,” said Dr Heinemeyer. “We also find that mowing encourages sedges, which have a negative impact on water quality and release methane through the chimney-like structures in their stalks.”

As well as this vital research into the science behind various moorland practices, Dr Heinemeyer’s work is also feeding into the UK’s government submissions under the UN climate change obligations. Prior to this study, there was very little data on carbon or greenhouse gas emissions from the UK’s blanket bogs, and none from grouse moors. Now, Dr Heinemeyer’s team work closely with advisors to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy department.

The only problem with the study is that ten years is such a small amount of time in the grand scheme of things; especially when you consider that your average upland peat bog will be around 6,000 to 8,000 years old. But although the study is not yet finished, Dr Heinemeyer predicts what some of the findings might be.

“What we have found so far is that there is unlikely a one size fits all approach to the management of grouse moors on blanket bogs”, he explains. “We need to know the site conditions to advise on the best management methods, and those conditions can change over time with the impact of climate change. To compare burning to alternative managements of either cutting or no management we also need to keep monitoring over the entire period of change post intervention – at least ten to 20 years. However, so far, a balance between mowing, burning and unmanaged areas looks likely to be the best approach. But how best to define and achieve that balance will be the next big question.”

Read the University of York's feature on Dr Heinemeyer's research here:

Defra's report of the first five years of study "Restoration of heather-dominated blanket bog vegetation on grouse moors for biodiversity, carbon storage, greenhouse gas emissions and water regulation: comparing burning to alternative mowing and uncut management", has been published here:


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