The situation with climate change is so tight that, if we want to achieve the Paris target of 1.5 Celsius average global temperature (and we must), we need to bring land management into the frame of action, and do so urgently.
Peatlands in the UK leak huge amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – 16 million tonnes of CO2e every year, the same as half the national GHG savings we make. This is because, overall, they’re in really poor condition, with bare peat eroding and losing carbon to both streams and sky. On blanket bogs, this is relatively easy to fix, by restoring habitat.
But the biggest carbon loss from peatlands in England comes from our agricultural peat soils, and this presents a much trickier problem. Perhaps because agriculture began on the arid soils of the Middle East, we’ve come to believe that the only route to productive land is to drain it. So we’ve drained peatlands for farming, across eastern England, in the south west, in the north west. With an even more pronounced impact than in the uplands – four metres of soil gone in East Anglia, clearly shown by the Holme Fen post.
The Holme Fen post - the top was level with the ground in 1851
Which is where swamp farming comes in. We need to keep productive, economic use on much of our farmed peatlands, but we need to do this in more appropriate ways. Grow useful crops on wet soils, keeping the carbon locked up in the soil, and indeed keeping the very soil in its place, halting the long-running erosion. Such agriculture is widespread globally, and known as paludiculture – from the Latin palus meaning swamp.
I’ve been at a conference looking at the different things we might grow on re-wetted soils in the UK, and thinking about how we might make this shift. Practical research, trials and economic assessments are well advanced in Germany. We heard of 75 potential crop species, with products ranging from food to medicines, insulation and biomass, fodder and construction materials. Horticulture is in the mix too, a popular activity on peat soils. And peat extraction companies were also present, interested in growing Sphagnum moss as a replacement for peat in composts.
A lot of opportunity, yet no-one is pretending this is going to be easy. Establishing new markets is just as important as establishing new crops. So the promising signals from the Committee on Climate Change recommending sustainable soil use by 2030, and from early stakeholder discussions on Defra’s England Peat Strategy, need to be matched with similar interest from the business and market development sectors of Government. With this, we could be well on the way to the greener post-Brexit Britain our politicians are talking up - and adding a crucial piece of the jigsaw towards the UK meeting our global climate change responsibilities.
Many thanks to Natural England and Cumbria Wildlife Trust for an inspiring event, hopefully a truly ground breaking one: paludiculture, swamp farming in Britain, just might have been started here.
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