Wherever peat soils form - there is a conservation story - often of loss and damage, occasionally of restoration and hope. They form a fragile home for distinctive and often threatened wildlife and the properties of the peat provide life-giving benefits for us - Chris Collett, our Communications Manager for North England turns his attention to the hills.
Last week we marked the launch of the IUCN UK Peatland Programme Strategy with an introduction to the importance of our peatlands and the poor condition of these habitats. In the second of our peat bog blogs we take a closer look at how the RSPB is restoring upland bogs on two of our reserves.   

RSPB Forsinard Flows is part of “The Flow Country”, a vast area of peatland stretching across the far north of Scotland. This special environment is mostly made up of blanket bog, an upland peatland habitat that forms in cool, wet places. The specialised plants such as cotton grass and sphagnum mosses that grow there don’t fully rot away when they die, but build up deep layers of peat. The Flow Country’s bogs have been growing for over 10,000 years and the peat can be up to 10 metres deep.

Forsinard locking up carbon and providing a home for wildlife. Photo credit Eleanor Bentall

Peat bogs are an important defence against climate change as the accumulated peat is a major store of carbon. The Flow Country’s peat bogs alone store more than three times the amount of carbon found in all of Britain’s woodlands.  They also play a key role in regulating water flow and quality, and are of international importance for a wide variety of wildlife, such as otters, mountain hares and hen harriers.

After remaining largely untouched for thousands of years, a government drive to produce more timber in the 1970s and ‘80s led to large areas of blanket bog being planted up with non-native forestry plantations. The associated ploughing and drainage, dried out the peat, released stored carbon and led to the loss of large areas of blanket bog and of associated  wildlife, particularly birds. Other areas of bog have been damaged in the past by agricultural drainage.

RSPB Scotland is restoring blanket bog in parts of the Flow Country as part of the Heritage Lottery Fund funded Peatlands Partnership – Flows to the Future Project. At RSPB Forsinard Flows, we have removed large areas of forestry plantations planted on blanket bog (over 2,600 hectares so far), blocked drainage ditches and allowed the original water levels to return. Thanks to this work the bog plants are recovering and will in time, start to form peat again. Wading birds like golden plovers, dunlins and greenshanks are now returning. In addition to ground-breaking peatland restoration work, the Flows to the Future Project is also helping people to experience the magic of the flows, both through the creation of a wonderful viewing tower and via a touring exhibition.

A view of the Flows- the viewing tower at Forsinard.

In the Peak District (near Saddleworth) the blanket bog is also in poor condition. Here the damage is due to a combination of historic atmospheric pollution, moorland fires and heavy sheep grazing, which has resulted in large areas of exposed bare peat.

Since 2010, the RSPB and water company United Utilities have been restoring blanket bog at Dove Stone in partnership with tenant farmers. This has involved intensive work to re-establish vegetation on large areas of bare peat, repairing eroded gullies and sowing sphagnum moss, the building block of blanket bog across the recovering areas that were formerly devoid of plant life.

As the bog gradually recovers it will start to accumulate peat and help tackle climate change by locking up harmful carbon and improve water quality by acting as a natural filtration system.

Before (2009) and after - restoring the damaged blanket bog at Dove Stone. Photo credit for both pictures, Ed Lawrence.

As in the Flows, our restoration work has already helped threatened moorland birds. Last summer, we recorded 49 pairs of dunlins at the Saddleworth site, up a quarter from the 39 pairs observed in 2014 and up five pairs on last year’s previous record of 44.  We also saw golden plovers increase at Dove Stone by a fifth, rising from 92 in 2014 to 110 this year.

These are just two examples of where we are helping the IUCN UK Peatland Programme meet its target of restoring two million hectares of peatland by 2040. Beyond these sites, we are working on many other projects across the UK, often in partnership with others, to breathe new life into our blanket bogs.

 Over in Wales at our Lake Vyrnwy reserve we’re making the blanket bog wetter and healthy again by blocking up the drains which were originally installed for agricultural purposes. In Northern Ireland, meanwhile, we’ve teamed up with Northern Ireland Water to reverse the damage to blanket bog on the Garron Plateau caused by livestock overgrazing and drainage. Despite their wild appearance and remoteness locations our upland bogs are vitally important both as a home for wildlife and as a provider of so many important things for society.  We must cherish our bogs for future generations to enjoy.

Next time, we’ll look at the efforts being made to restore the degraded raised bogs in our lowlands.