Why Yorkshire's peat moorlands are planning for a post-Brexit future

It is key to combating global warming, but those working to restore Yorkshire's peat moorlands tell Andrew Griffiths why they are planning for a post-Brexit future.
ECOLOGY: The peat landscape of the North Pennines.ECOLOGY: The peat landscape of the North Pennines.
ECOLOGY: The peat landscape of the North Pennines.

We all know that planting a tree is ‘a good thing’ to do. We might not understand the science of it, but we know that it has something to do with soaking up the CO2, and that CO2 is one of the gases that cause climate change, so planting a tree helps the fight against global warming.

We also know that it is a long game. We plant a sapling knowing that we may not even be around to see it fully grown, but we do it for our children. And they look beautiful too – just look at the fuss surrounding the cutting-down of the Sheffield trees to appreciate how much that can mean to many of us.

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But we don’t feel these same emotions when we drive across the Yorkshire moors. But perhaps we should, because on a global scale these peat landscapes store 42 per cent of all soil carbon – which is more than all the world’s forests put together. In the UK, we have 13 per cent of the world’s total peat bogs, and in Yorkshire we have a fair old chunk of that.

A healthy, functioning moorland is vital as we attempt to combat global warming. Unfortunately, due to a combination of industrial pollution and poor public policy decisions, not all our moorland is functioning as it should. In fact some of it has been totally wrecked.

The last decade these problems have begun to be addressed. The Moors for the Future Partnership in the South Pennines has done amazing work undoing the ravages of the industrial age. Moving further north, the damage has different causes – largely draining on a mass scale, encouraged by agricultural policy in the 1970s and 80s.

The resulting dried-out and crumbling landscape is now being repaired by a project led by the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) which has just gone into its latest four-year phase, funded by 
the European Union’s LIFE programme and co-financed by water utility companies.

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“We have between us probably the most drained blanket bog in England, if not the UK,” says Paul Leadbitter, who is leading the £6m project for the AONB. “In the North Pennines alone, we have 10,000km of drainage ditches. Yorkshire will have maybe five or 6,000, and between us and the Bowland a few thousand more, so we have the better part of 20,000km of drainage ditches.”

These ditches – or ‘grips’ as they are called on the moors – were dug to drain the land and make it suitable for sheep to graze, to produce more food, and farmers received agricultural subsidies to do this. But the policy had unforeseen consequences.

“The peat just dried it out and washed it away and blew it away,” Leadbitter explains. “So that is the work we have been doing over the last ten years; we have done a lot of grip blocking work – in the North Pennines we have blocked about 90 per cent of them. But what it has also done is left a legacy of eroding peat. In the North Pennines, we have about 3,000 hectares of eroding areas.”

It is this eroding peat that explains why the water companies are so keen to fund these projects. Almost half of Yorkshire Water’s supply comes from these regions. Eroding peat gets into the water supply and discolours it. But this is not just a cosmetic matter – chlorine reacts with the peat and makes carcinogenic compounds. It can cost the water companies a small fortune treating the water at the end of the pipe – it makes far more sense to address the problem up in the hills.

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Combine this with the role the moorland plays in flood management. Block up the grips, recreate the blanket bogs and hold on to more water on
the tops of the hills, then that is less water to enter our rivers and potentially our front rooms at times of heavy rain.

Another aspect of the Pennine PeatLIFE project is to try to find new ways to pay for these ‘services’ and the restoration work it is doing up on the moors. The Peatland Code is being developed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The idea behind it is simple. Peat bogs lock up carbon dioxide and help to prevent global warming. As they go about their business, commercial companies leave a ‘carbon footprint’, so their activities contribute to global warming. The idea of the Peatland Code is to ‘sell’ the carbon stored by restoring moorland to a business, proportionate to the amount of carbon it creates.

The voluntary code is looking to attract investment motivated by Corporate Social Responsibility. It cannot as yet be set against carbon offset schemes. Based on the tried and tested Woodland Code, it is being coordinated by Jillian Hoy of the IUCN, who has experience of working with both. Bogs though, may prove a trickier sell than trees.

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“More is known to the general public about woodland, because everyone has a tree in their garden,” says Hoy. “They are very understanding of the long timescales involved. Whereas if you are not from an area which is peat-dominated, it is not something you are generally aware of.”

The timescales on the moors, between doing something and the ramifications of having done it, can be long. If a blanket bog has been burned, for instance, it can take up to 80 years before it is fully restored.

“It’s all happening below the surface,” says Hoy. “Peat forms incredibly slowly.” One-millimetre-a-year slowly.The key ingredient of blanket bog is sphagnum, and it is this little moss in the waterlogged environment that so slows down the rate of vegetation decay, which so over time forms the fibrous peat itself. Hoy will be working with the PeatLIFE Partnership across a range of restoration sites in a feasibility study which will see them collaborating with Yorkshire Water’s legal team. The aim is to develop a contract that can then be offered to other businesses and allow them to ‘invest’ in subsequent peatland restoration projects.

“The intention of the Peatland Code is to encourage those who otherwise wouldn’t take up peatland restoration to do so,” says Hoy. The whole project is exploring new territory, but it is particularly relevant given Brexit and the radical changes that will bring to the funding landscape of the uplands.

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“The appetite from the land-owning industry and the shooting industry hasn’t been tested,” says Leadbitter. “The vast majority of the uplands and peatlands and the bogs up here are owned by shooting estates.” But the hope is that schemes such as the Peatland Code will provide another potential revenue stream for the uplands.

“We are trying to encourage long-term management of peatland restoration,” says Hoy. “A lot of public funding currently just pays for the restoration works: so that could be drain blocking, but there is a management payment going forwards. The benefits accrue long term so you want those peatlands to stay in condition and continue their movement along a pathway to a sphagnum dominated landscape.”

Given the ecosystem services these brooding moorland landscapes provide, that is an important outcome for us all.


Moors For The Future is looking for volunteers to help with environmental monitoring projects.

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The work takes place in the Peak District National Park, north of Edale, and in the South Pennines around Rochdale and monitoring teams tend to go out during the week rather than weekends. Volunteers will get the chance to learn more about the moorland and blanket bog habitats of the Peak District National Park and South Pennines and will acquire a range of skills while working alongside experienced survey staff.

For a full range of volunteering opportunities available, go to moorsforthefuture.org.uk. To find out more about the Peatland Code visit iucn-uk-peatlandprogramme.org/peatland-code