Peatland restoration is vital – but it's by no means a new phenomenon
Britain’s peatlands are one of the most important landscapes when it comes to carbon capture and greenhouse gas emissions. Accordingly, over recent months and years there has been an awful lot of talk about peat; both about its use as a fuel, and the preservation of peatlands more generally. That’s both in the UK and internationally; while Canada has the largest peatland carbon stock in the world, the U.K. has more than 7 million acres of peatland, placing it the world’s top ten countries for wetland area.
Due to the opportunity for carbon capture, peatland restoration and rewetting is a very fashionable activity at the moment – particularly with COP26 ongoing and the government’s green credentials being closely examined. Peatland restoration is a top priority for UK governments.
The Scottish government have announced that peatland restoration is one of their main priorities in their bid to become net zero by 2045, while in August Defra announced its intention to invest over £50 million in peat restoration, building on its pledge to restore 5,000 hectares of peatland in England by the end of this Parliament.
But while peatland restoration is currently all the rage amongst the powers that be, its importance is something that the vast majority of upland landowners have long been aware of and been putting into practice. Healthy peatlands store carbon, instead of releasing it as carbon dioxide, and can help in moderating climate change. But in the 1960s and 70s, moorland areas were drained in a bid to make the land more agriculturally viable; in recent decades, work has been done to reverse those actions and rewet the peat.
A recent survey of more than 100 members of the Moorland Association showed that more than 3,157 hectares of bare peat had been restored, with 2,945 kilometres of old grips blocked to re-wet the peat. Another 1,275 hectares of trees had been planted, with 43,530 tons of CO2 captured – equivalent to taking 20,533 cars off the road. This means that 26 per cent of the government’s 2025 peatland restoration target had already been achieved.
This is nothing new: previous decades have seen work to restore at least 24,000 hectares of peatland and block 4,000km (2,485 miles) of drains.
In the North Pennines, nine privately owned moorland estates have worked together to restore nearly 1000 hectares. As well as reprofiling eroded areas of peat and blocking drains, the estates have brought in sphagnum moss plus and heather brash in order to restore vegetation
In Middlesmoor, Yorkshire, a £1.5m restoration project involving a collaboration between the moor owners and the Yorkshire Peat Partnership has provided valuable protection for the local peatland and its ability to combat climate change. The development spans 1,414 hectares, equivalent to 1,724 football pitches, and involves grip blocking and Sphagnum moss introduction, which will provide the peat with long-term stability and re-start the carbon sequestering process.
Of course, while peatland restoration and rewetting is vital, it's by no means the end of the story. As has been shown time and time again as wildfires break out on the moors, even the wettest of peat bogs is not enough to stop a summer wildfire in its tracks. Carrying out peatland restoration in conjunction with controlled burning to reduce excess dead vegetation and to create fire breaks is the best way to combine the two tactics, enabling the peatlands to thrive and carry out their carbon capture role.