“It’s the Amazon on our doorstep,” says Jenny Sharman as we walk onto an area of peat moorland near Hawes in the Yorkshire Dales. “And it’s as if we’ve chopped it down.”
Jenny is a restoration officer for Yorkshire Peat Partnership. She has spent a year surveying Fleet Moss, paving the way for major restoration works which started in March.
“Fleet Moss can be seen from space,” says Jenny, pulling from her bag a laminated aerial image to prove it. “All that carbon we have lost is contributing to climate change in a big way. Peatlands are our rainforests.”
At the Skipton offices of Yorkshire Peat Partnership they’ve nicknamed Fleet Moss the Somme, such is the devastation at the site.
‘It’s dead land effectively. Degraded bog is no good to anyone, for farming, for shoots, for people, for anything,” says Jenny.
Water from one side of the bog runs off into Barden Beck and then into Semerwater (see map below), one of only two natural lakes remaining in the Yorkshire Dales.
Such has been the amount of peat washed down, Semerwater has partially silted up and its waters have become opaque and more acidic.
The Wensleydale naturalist, Deborah Millward, who has advised Yorkshire Peat Partnership, said: “We have to remember that all water bodies are ephemeral. Yet Semerwater is silting up at a far quicker rate than it ordinarily might because of all the peat being washed down from Fleet Moss. The problem at the moment is only getting worse.”
During high rainfall, torrents also flow off Fleet Moss on to the other side of the watershed – into Oughtershaw –and ultimately into the River Wharfe, adding to flood risk downstream.
It’s all gone wrong rather quickly. Until the late 1950s, the bog at Fleet Moss would have consisted of a layer (or ‘blanket’) of peat some four metres deep. About a metre of peat is thought to form every 1000 years. This was a significantly huge store of carbon, as well as a natural facility which held water on the moor.
Today by contrast, mounds of peat known as hags stand proud of countless channels and gullies. Some of the gullies have a stone bottom (‘it’s gone down to mineral’, as Jenny puts it), with the peat entirely washed away. In others, only a few centimetres of peat remain.
As with other degraded blanket bogs, the causes of erosion are thought to be over grazing, draining and atmospheric pollution. Wildfires, or managed burning, are also a typical cause.
Little wonder that Fleet Moss was identified early on as a priority site for the Yorkshire Peat Partnership, which this year celebrates its tenth anniversary. “This site is what started the YPP,” says Jenny.
More than 400 hectares of Fleet Moss have been restored so far. Now funding from Pennine PeatLIFE, Defra and owners supported by agri-environment scheme payments, totalling £510,000, is in place to pay for the restoration of a further 100 hectares over the next three years.
So, how do you restore peatland? To answer that question, Jenny took me to Stake Moss, another blanket bog a few miles away. It straddles the high point of the green lane running from Stalling Busk over to Cray and Buckden (see map). It has been subject to intense restoration efforts this winter, 2018/19.
The first stage of restoration at Stake Moss, as elsewhere, was the survey work. It would be almost impossible to restore peatland without modern technology. Data collected by UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) is used to create maps which show which way each channel and gully runs.
Vegetation surveys, lab tests and old-fashioned depth rods are used to get a full picture of the bog’s condition. The next stage is to dam the channels and gullies. This requires digger work and skilled contractors. Local firm, Marsdens, carried out the work on Stake Moss.
Coir logs are staked across channels where the depth of peat remains between 1.2-3.6m. Coir is the outer husk of coconuts; all the logs must be imported, often from India or East Africa.
Sediment soon builds up behind the logs and, after a year, Yorkshire Peat Partnership staff and volunteers come along to put in plug plants of blanket bog species such as crowberry.
“As soon as we block the channels the hydrology changes immediately. The aim is to keep the water on the moor, for the biodiversity as well as everything else. If we slow the flow, we create the ecology we want,” says Jenny.
Where the erosion has been so bad that the bog has ‘gone down to mineral’, stone dams are created. Stone is lifted to site by helicopter and dropped in position. The stone dams, like the coir logs, stop peat being washed away and lead to the build up of sediment.
It struck me as I watched Jenny prodding the peat that she was stood before four thousand years of history.
Other peatland restoration techniques include installing wooden ‘leaky dams’; creating peat bunds; re-profiling the hags; and covering bare peat with a brash of chopped heather, sphagnum mosses and dwarf shrubs mixed with grass and dwarf shrub seeds.
“It is a new science,” says Jenny. “We’re still working out what techniques work where.”
It’s about time the all-important S-word cropped up; there can be no blanket bog without sphagnum.
Sphagnum mosses are rootless plants which, Jenny says, hold ‘about 24 times their weight in water’.
When the underparts of the sphagnum decay, peat is formed. Peat, if you were wondering, differs from soil in that it is acidic and anerobic i.e there is no oxygen in it.
Jenny is clearly impressed by all the work that has taken place on Stake Moss. “It’s like magic to me. Five months ago you’d have seen hags everywhere. What I’m hoping to happen here is that it’ll become amazing spots for birds and insects. But long term funding will be needed to keep building up layer by layer. We’ll need to come back every five years,” she says.
Healthy blanket bog supports a rich diversity of plant and animal life such as breeding waders and raptors. At one moment during our tour, we dropped to our knees to study the droppings of a short eared owl.
What did I learn from the experience? That blanket bogs are beautiful, if usually wet and misty places, of fundamental importance to the hydrology and ecology of the National Park.
It will take thousands of years to restore what has been lost in just a few decades, but the work to repair the damage, at least, appears to be gathering pace.
Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority Member Champion for the Natural Environment, Ian McPherson, said: “Almost all the blanket bog in the Yorkshire Dales National Park is internationally-designated for wildlife. Peatland restoration is perhaps the most obvious and the most important environmental work we can do in the Dales because in terms of biodiversity and sequestering carbon, the gains are enormous.
“It has been calculated that investment in restoring peatlands right across the northern Pennines would generate net benefits of £760 million pounds over 40 years – just from the value of the carbon stored and the improvements in wildlife.”
The Yorkshire Dales National Park Authority, together with the Environment Agency, Yorkshire Water, Natural England and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, is among the core funding members of Yorkshire Peat Partnership. The Trust coordinates the practical works on the ground.