Guest blog by Jonathan Bell, Head of Land and Sea Policy, RSPB NI and Ruairi Brogan, Policy Officer - Sustainable Agriculture, RSPB NI

In Northern Ireland, peatland covers 24.6% of our land area and represent some of our most iconic landscapes. When healthy and well-functioning, these mossy, wetland soils can provide a vast array of benefits to society, from improved water quality, natural flood management, and carbon storage to a safe home for some of our most iconic species, including curlews, hen harriers and rare plants, such as the marsh saxifrage and the bog orchid. 75% of our land is farmed, and with most peatlands used for grazing livestock or forestry, farmers and landowners will play a crucial role in delivering the restoration action and ongoing management of our peatland habitats required to provide such societal benefits.

Dungonnell Peat Dams. Image: Henry McLaughlin NIW

Peatland pressure

Unfortunately, our peatlands are facing a range of pressures, which impact their ability to provide these vital services. Overgrazing, drainage, inappropriately sited forestry, burning and extraction in lowland areas has left 86% of our peatland in a damaged and deteriorating state. But peatlands can be restored to good health by blocking drains and reprofiling eroded bogs to restore the natural water flow. Restoring peatland sites also means changing land use practices, including ending burning, preventing overgrazing, restoring afforested peat sites and ending commercial extraction for horticulture.

There is a moral imperative to restore nature in the midst of the Nature and Climate emergency, but in doing so we can reap a multitude of benefits. Nature is an asset and restoring it makes sound economic sense. But often nature is left off the balance sheet and decision making fails to recognise the economic value of protecting and restoring nature. Natural capital accounting is an approach that attributes monetary values to ecosystem services, with the aim of giving decision makers a better understanding of the ‘value’ of nature to society. RSPBNI has completed a project calculating the economic costs and benefits of restoring peatland sites in Northern Ireland to help strengthen the case for better protection, management and restoration of peatland habitats in Northern Ireland.

Societal benefits of restoration

The research, funded by the Department of Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), involved undertaking Natural Capital Assessments of two priority peatland sites in County Antrim where RSPBNI has been working with a range of partners to restore these sites to favourable condition. First, the Garron Plateau, the largest section of intact blanket bog in Northern Ireland and Montiaghs Moss, an area of lowland cut over bog. The study has calculated the societal value that can be delivered through the restoration of these sites, through benefits such as increased carbon storage and sequestration, improved water quality or reduced flood risk. The results are impressive. For example, on the Garron Plateau RSPB NI has worked in partnership with NI Water since 2011 to restore the blanket bog and other important habitats across the site through blocking a network of drains and reducing grazing pressure across the site. The restoration has delivered over £500,000 worth of societal benefits per year by avoiding around 9000 tonnes of carbon loss from soils.

Further restoration involving the entirety of the site could increase the value of public benefits to £1.2 million per year through additional carbon emission reductions. But the benefits extend much further than carbon; existing restoration has already delivered significant improvements in raw water quality and will help make surrounding towns more resilient to extreme flooding. On Montiaghs the study has found that restoration of the site will not only help the threatened marsh fritillary butterfly but will also provide reductions in GHG emissions and provide public health benefits through more people getting greater access to nature. On both sites these benefits far outweigh the investment in restoration and further maintenance, providing a sound return on investment.

Marsh fritillary butterfly. Image: Patrick Cashman (rspb-images.com)

Investing in our peatlands

The study reinforces the immense value in restoring peatland sites for nature, climate and people. We now must harness this opportunity and deliver it at scale, through an ambitious well-funded programme of peatland restoration in Northern Ireland. This can be achieved through reforms to agricultural policy which reward landowners for better managing their peatlands.
With the announcement of DAERA’s Future Agricultural Policy Framework Portfolio, post Common Agricultural Policy investment over the next five years is set to focus on productivity and environmental sustainability. Within this context, the RSPB NI is calling for careful consideration to be taken when adopting new drives to increase agricultural output, with a strong emphasis to be placed on public money for public goods. Any resultant payment schemes should be sufficient in supporting farmers to transition to more sustainable practices, enhancing the land and promoting prosperous and resilient rural communities. This study reveals that not only will such investments be effective, but that well-managed peatland restoration projects could provide substantial contributions to employment in upland and disadvantaged areas.

Livestock farmers in Northern Ireland are highly dependent on the existing direct payments, but with appropriate financial incentives and a shift in attitude towards conservation-oriented farming, such as High Nature Value farming, peatland farmers are potentially well placed to avail of new opportunities. Diversifying farm incomes, increasing natural assets for landowners, providing ecosystem services to communities, and empowering farmers to take a hands-on role in tackling the climate and nature emergencies.

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