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The work of Yorkshire Peat Partnership and why it matters

Logo:Yorkshire Peat Partnership

By Lyndon Marquis, Communications Officer

The sundew has adapted to its nutrient poor environment by consuming insects (Lizzie Shepherd)
The sundew has adapted to its nutrient poor environment by consuming insects (Lizzie Shepherd)

Blanket bog is (in England) an upland peatland habitat, occurring from around 200m upwards, generally on flat or gently sloping ground where drainage is poor. Few plants are adapted to the acidic, infertile conditions found on the deepest peat (which can be several metres in depth) and sphagnum (bog mosses) and cottongrasses predominate. You will also find dwarf-shrubs such as heather, bilberry, cranberry and crowberry, and the carnivorous sundew.

The UK has 13% of the world’s blanket bog, and we estimate Yorkshire holds around 86,377 ha - around 24% of England’s total resource – storing over 38,000 tonnes of carbon. In addition to locking up millennia of carbon, healthy blanket bog helps to slow the flow of water from the uplands into rivers and streams, filters our drinking water and provides habitat for some amazing wildlife. Formed over thousands of years, it has taken just six decades to devastate Yorkshire's peatlands.

Most damage occurred between the 1950s and 1980s, when the government incentivised landowners to drain the land for “agricultural improvement”. Drainage channels – known as grips – were dug across vast tracts of blanket bog, which still criss-cross the landscape today.

The grips drained rainfall off the peat, lowering the water table dramatically. As the condition of the bogs deteriorated, running water gradually started to cut its own channels – gullies – into the habitat. Sphagnum and other peat forming plants struggled to survive in this newly drying environment; over 80% of Yorkshire’s blanket bog has been damaged in this way. As the surface vegetation dried out, the peat underneath was exposed, with two major impacts:

  • the carbon stored within the peat was released into the atmosphere
  • the peat was washed into the grips and then into our river systems.

As water ran into the grips and gullies, erosion spiralled with more flowing water creating deeper and wider gullies; leaving huge areas of bare, exposed broken peat landscapes.

Fleet Moss from the air - you can clearly see the grips as pairs of parallel lines (Alistair Lockhart)
Fleet Moss from the air - you can clearly see the grips as pairs of parallel lines (Alistair Lockhart)

Yorkshire Peat Partnership began in 2009, as an umbrella organisation led by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, to try to coordinate the restoration of the badly degraded blanket bog of northern Yorkshire. Since then, we have become the primary organisation coordinating the delivery of upland peatland restoration across the Yorkshire Dales National Park, the North York Moors National Park, Nidderdale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and northern parts of the South Pennines. We are also delivering peatland restoration in parts of Forest of Bowland Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, and work with other organisations on restoration sites across the North of England. We work closely with landowners, agents, gamekeepers, farmers and contractors to help restore Yorkshire’s internationally important blanket bog.

Restoring this habitat is hard work. Due to restrictions on accessing the land we restore (90% is privately owned), we have to work throughout the autumn and winter. In the wild, remote landscapes in which blanket bog occurs, weather conditions can be extremely harsh and the team must contend with snow, ice and freezing winds.

Before we begin work on restoring an area of peatland, we first need to understand exactly what the damage is and how the landscape works. This includes:

  • how water moves on the landscape when it rains
  • what vegetation is growing there
  • the depth and steepness of the gullies.

We spend a lot of time surveying a restoration site to obtain this information. With permission of the landowner, we go over a site on foot and also use Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to help us capture the data we need.

Coir logs holding back water in Bishopdale - you can see sphagnum growing up the logs (Lyndon Marquis)
Coir logs holding back water in Bishopdale - you can see sphagnum growing up the logs (Lyndon Marquis)

There are various techniques we use to help a degraded peatland to thrive again, but all restoration comes down to correcting the hydrology. Nothing can happen until we have brought the water table back to the surface.

By blocking grips and gullies, we raise the water table, which helps to re-saturate the land and provide conditions for re-establishing the habitat architect: sphagnum. Over 1,700 kilometres of grips and gullies have been blocked by Yorkshire Peat Partnership so far - more than the distance from Skipton to St Tropez!

We use a variety of materials to block the grips. We prefer to use peat or other material found naturally on peatlands, but sometimes the damage is so extensive that we need to use wood, coir (in the form of “logs”) or stone.

Sphagnum divinum - one of the key peat-forming species of sphagnum (Jenny Sharman)
Sphagnum divinum - one of the key peat-forming species of sphagnum (Jenny Sharman)

“Hagging” in gullies and grips is a problem – this is when slopes of bare peat are too steeply angled to allow vegetation to grow. We use diggers to “reprofile” these erosion features. This basically means lowering the gradient of the slopes and then covering them with a layer of vegetation. Shallower sloping and surface roughness slow the flow of water which, in turn, slows the rate of erosion and allows plants to recolonise. Our contractors’ diggers have been modified to spread out their weight to exert less ground pressure than a human foot.

We plant a range of sphagnum mosses and cottongrass on the bare peat so it is less vulnerable to erosion. The sphagnum will eventually form more peat, and helps to further slow the flow of rain running off the peatlands, as well as filtering our water.

Yorkshire Peat Partnership is managed by Yorkshire Wildlife Trust – all the staff are Trust employees – in partnership with Yorkshire Water, Natural England, North York Moors National Park Authority, Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority and the Environment Agency with support from the Moorland Association, National Trust, Nidderdale AONB, and the National Farmers Union.

Find out more at yppartnership.org.uk

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